Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Will Covid Federal Civil Immunity Preempt California OSHA Covid Rules?

UPDATE: Some folks are telling me that liability immunity is being pulled from the table. I hope that is true, but let's just say I'm not taking this post down and won't be holding my breath, either.

It appears that one of the most Draconian American tort immunity bills ever conceived is about to be foisted on states any minute now. (But don’t worry, it will only be in effect for a year OR until a Government bureaucrat says the emergency is over – what could go wrong?). In essence Washington/corporate-dictated tort immunity (in derogation of a historically state and local prerogative) will mean the “empty preemption” of state (and in many cases) federal liability with respect to all things Covid (and you can expect creative expansion of defenses to include a Covid connection; not unlike my time at the NLRB when every employer defense in late 2001 somehow invoked 9/11). Time does not permit me to do a line-by-line analysis of the immunity provisions. (Workers’ compensation has been completely exempted). For now I want to focus on a very concrete question. A story in today’s WorkCompCentral about California Covid-related workplace safety rules stated that (behind paywall),

Employers who don’t follow Cal/OSHA’s new rules may see escalating fines, from around $13,000 for a first violation to hundreds of thousands in penalties for willful and repeated disregard of approved safety measures.


The rules require employers to create and maintain proactive, site-specific plans to protect workers from the virus. Employers also must provide workers with face coverings and enforce social distancing policies spelled out in federal, state and local health guidelines.

According to the draft of the likely federal Covid immunity language that has been circulating, Download 2020decemberdraft immunity bill, “a coronavirus exposure action in which liability may be imposed under a standard that is less stringent than a standard of gross negligence may not be filed or maintained in any Federal, State, or Tribal court.” Sec. 11(a). Moreover, the same section “preempts and supersedes any Federal, State, or Tribal law, including statutes, regulations, rules, orders, proclamations, or standards that are enacted, promulgated, or established under common law, under which liability may be imposed in a coronavirus exposure action under a standard that is less stringent than a standard of gross negligence.” Sec. 11(d).

On the other hand excluded from the definition of “coronavirus exposure” or “coronavirus-related medical liability” actions, subject to the preemption described in the previous paragraph, is “a criminal, civil, or administrative enforcement action brought by the Federal Government or any State, local, or Tribal government.” Secs. 3(4) and 3(7).

To the extent Cal/OSHA penalties are imposed for other than “gross negligence” you might think they are spared from preemption if imposed pursuant to state “administrative enforcement action.” But, as my administrative law students over the years would tell you, administrative orders are not self-enforcing, they must be enforced by a court. So the question becomes whether an agency’s application with a court for enforcement will survive preemption under Sec. 11(a). (Buried in that question is also a thorny abstention problem since this bill badly wants to shunt ALL state liability claims into federal court rather transparently to ensure that they are summarily dismissed. See Sec. 31—will federal courts issue injunctions to suspend state court enforcement of state administrative orders?).

The argument here should be that exclusion of state enforcement actions from the definition of “coronavirus exposure” or “coronavirus-related medical liability” implicitly acknowledges that preemption applies only to individually-filed liability actions, and that California should be able to enforce its OSHA penalties in its own courts.

Michael C. Duff

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