Nevada casinos, small businesses seek protection from coronavirus lawsuits

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Steve Marcus

The Statue of Liberty wears a face mask in front of the New York-NewYork on the Las Vegas Strip Friday, July 17, 2020. The oversized mask measures over nine feet wide, five feet, six inches tall and reads “Vegas Safely.” The half-size replica of the Statue of Liberty is 150 feet tall from the ground to the top of the torch, including the pedestal.

Fri, Jul 31, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The Nevada Resort Association is pressing state lawmakers to pass legislation to protect casinos from unfounded coronavirus-related lawsuits it says could shut them back down.

In a letter to Gov. Steve Sisolak this month, the association said it is seeking “targeted and limited safe harbor from liability for companies that implement strict public health guidelines related to the transmission of COVID-19.”

“The risk of frivolous litigation that mounts each day threatens the resort industry’s continued operations,” the letter says.

The push comes as Nevada lawmakers convene for a second special session of the Legislature this morning. Sisolak said the session will include measures to prevent businesses from taking further economic hits during the pandemic.

Nevada’s casinos were closed for more than two months after the governor in mid-March ordered the shutdown of all nonessential businesses to help curb the spread of the virus.

Casinos were allowed to start reopening June 4 with restrictions, including reduced occupancies and, later, mandatory face masks for all employees and guests.

Individual resorts implemented safety plans that include measures such as enhanced cleaning, social distancing guidelines and employee and guest temperature checks.

The Resort Association said businesses that are “working responsibly and in good faith” should not be subjected to costly litigation. “Instead, lawsuits should focus solely on those bad actors that fail to take necessary steps to protect their employees and customers,” the association said.

One Strip casino company executive, who did not want to be named, said it would be a “disaster for the economy and Nevada’s workers, if businesses — large or small — were faced with the choice of operating responsibly or having to close in the face of litigation.”

But Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, said her organization is working with the Nevada Workers Coalition to push back against measures to limit workplace liability.

In a statement, the coalition of progressive groups and unions said protections already exist against unfounded claims and it’s “up to the courts to decide whether or not a lawsuit is warranted.”

“It is a liability issue, so what you do is you go above and beyond to make sure you’re covering yourself,” Magnus said.

According to the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, at least 352 members or their families have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and at least 28 have died. In mid-July, state health officials reported at least 123 people had tested positive for coronavirus while visiting Nevada or shortly after returning home.

While the Resort Association says liability protection is critical to safeguard the state’s largest industry and economic foundation, big casino operators are not the only ones with a stake in the proposed legislation.

The National Federation of Independent Business says liability protection is also vital for small businesses in Nevada.

“Quite frankly, nothing else the Legislature will consider is as important as making it as easy as possible for Silver State small-business owners to reopen, rehire and regenerate our economy — nothing,” Randi Thompson, the organization’s state director, said in a statement.

“Of all the daily worries small-business owners have, a lawsuit is the joker in the deck that can shutter an enterprise faster than any,” Thompson said.

What makes potential COVID-19 lawsuits particularly insidious, is that there is almost no way to prove a customer or employee contracted the disease at a particular business, the federation noted.

That will not, however, stop lawyers from initiating litigation and seeking settlements, the group said.

In a news release, the federation cited several Nevada business owners who have spoken out on the issue.

Toni Warden, owner of Garden Shop Nursery and Landscape in Sparks, described businesses as “sitting ducks for eager attorneys and unethical individuals. COVID-19 has changed our world forever.”

Larry Appel, owner of Pianissimo Coffee & More in Reno, said many small businesses are “barely hanging on and one lawsuit would kill them.”

“In fact, insurance companies are now saying they will not cover any COVID-related claims, so any liability now becomes a personal financial attack on the owners,” he said.

Mary Beth Sewald, CEO of the Vegas Chamber, said the legislation is imperative for the recovery and growth of the local economy.

“What businesses are saying to us is that they’re afraid to open or afraid to do business because somebody could decide to sue them, even though we’re following all the guidelines," she said. "We’re not trying to protect any bad actors, but if you look across the country, lawsuits are already ramping up."

John Sadler contributed reporting to this story.

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