Wisconsin Joins States Providing Civil Immunity Related to COVID-19 Exposure
On February 25, 2021, Wisconsin joined Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming in enacting a COVID-19 litigation shield law. Governor Tony Evers signed a bill providing entities broad immunity from “civil liability for the death of or injury to any individual or [for] damages caused by an act or omission resulting in or relating to exposure, directly or indirectly, to … COVID-19.”
Under the new law, covered entities—including employers and their employees, owners, agents, and independent contractors—have robust state-law immunity from civil liability resulting from a COVID-19 exposure in the course, performance, or provision of the entities’ functions or services. The immunity applies retroactively to March 1, 2020, but excludes pending claims and “act[s] or omission[s] involv[ing] reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct.” The law does not impact the availability of workers’ compensation benefits, but it makes clear that Wisconsin will not expand tort liability due to COVID-19.
In addition, the law extends the waiver of the seven-day waiting period for unemployment insurance benefits until March 14, 2021. That waiver, which had lapsed on February 7, 2021, must be in place for Wisconsin to receive certain federal unemployment insurance funds. Similarly, the law extends popular modifications to the work-share program until the national emergency declared with respect to the pandemic is over, or until July 4, 2021, whichever is earlier. The law also allows the secretary of workforce development to waive the prohibition “that no extended benefit period may begin by reason of a Wisconsin ‘on’ indicator before the 14th week following the end of a prior extended benefit period that was in effect with respect to Wisconsin.”
Finally, the bill directs the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to overhaul the unemployment insurance system—namely, by “updat[ing] its information technology systems used for processing and paying claims for benefits”—by no later than June 30, 2021, absent a request for extension. For purposes of funding the overhaul, the bill directs DWD to exhaust federal benefits, including any made available by federal COVID-19 relief legislation.