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Montana Senate Committee Supports COVID-19 Business Liability Bill

A split screen capture shows, on the left, lawmakers seated around a U-shaped configuration of tables in a small conference room, and on the right boxes showing individual lawmakers participating in the meeting remotely.
Montana Public Affairs Network
The Montana Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee takes executive action on Senate Bill 65 on Jan. 15, 2021.

The Montana Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee Friday supported a bill that would protect businesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits, provided they follow health guidelines.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte requested the legislation as a condition for lifting the statewide mask mandate.

Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls said the bill would raise the threshold for a lawsuit from ordinary to gross negligence.

“This is to restart Montana’s economy," Fitzpatrick said.

The committee approved Senate Bill 65 with an 8 to 3 vote.

In addition to businesses, the policy would protect places of worship, health care providers and nonprofit organizations from getting sued if someone is exposed to COVID-19 while visiting their locations provided that business or organization is complying with local, state or federal regulations.

The Montana Trial Lawyers Association opposed the bill during an earlier hearing, saying there hasn’t been an explosion of COVID-19-related lawsuits. Fitzpatrick said the Legislature should try to anticipate problems before they happen.

Gov. Gianforte has said the state must institute COVID-19 liability protections before he lifts a statewide mask mandate enacted by his predecessor, Democratic. Gov. Steve Bullock.

This week, Gianforte rescinded statewide restrictions on event group sizes, as well as capacity and operating hours at bars, restaurants and other businesses.

The full Senate will debate Senate Bill 65 on Monday.