September 27, 2022

Volume XII, Number 270


September 26, 2022

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COVID-19 Civil Immunity Protections for Institutions of Higher Education

COVID-19 litigation has begun across the nation, prompting concerns about liability exposure for colleges and universities. Although the federal SAFE TO WORK Act, which was introduced in the Senate on July 27, 2020, would have provided a heightened burden of proof and pleading requirements for COVID-19 claims for alleged exposure to the virus, the Act gained no traction and was never passed. The most recent round of federal stimulus legislation passed in December similarly contained no immunity protections for any sector.  

Despite the lack of current federal action, numerous states have provided civil immunity protections that apply to institutions of higher education, such as Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio. Generally, these protections shield institutions against liability in COVID-19 lawsuits unless it is established that the exposure or transmission of the virus was due to reckless, intentional, willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the institution against whom the action is brought. Additionally, some states afford civil immunity protections if the institution substantially complied with applicable federal, state and local public health guidance related to COVID-19. While most of these protections apply to exposure and transmission claims, at least one state, North Carolina, has passed statutory protections that specifically shield institutions from claims arising out of or in connection with tuition or fees paid to the institution during the pandemic. 

Institutions should determine whether their state has enacted civil immunity protections for COVID-19 claims, whether they are applicable to their institution and if there are any steps that need to be taken to ensure those protections can be invoked as a defense to any claims. In states where legislation has not been passed, we strongly encourage institutions to lobby their state officials in upcoming legislative sessions for such protections. Following virus-related legal requirements and the guidance of the CDC and state and local health officials, however, is the best protection against pandemic claims, even if your state has not passed immunity legislation.  

© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 15

About this Author

Susan Deniker, labor and employment law, litigation, and education law attorney, Steptoe Johnson Law Firm

Susan Deniker focuses her practice in the areas of labor and employment law, litigation, and education law. Ms. Deniker's practice includes state and federal court cases, as well as cases before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Ms. Deniker is leader of the firm's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

Key Experience

  • Defended a client in a class action litigation involving claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Represented numerous clients in...
Joshua L. Stearns ASSOCIATE Louisville Health Law Construction

As a student-athlete on the University of Louisville football team, Josh learned how to work as part of a team, think analytically in stressful situations, and respect the importance of self-discipline and details.  In his legal practice, Josh takes the lessons he learned on the field and puts them to work for his clients. His clients have needs in health care, corporate law, business transactions, and construction.  Growing up in Kentucky, Josh is proud to work with organizations who share his vision for improving the local community, especially his health care clients. Those clients...