Ontario will provide liability protection to some workers, businesses and non-profits against COVID-19 exposure-related lawsuits.
Attorney General Doug Downey introduced the new bill Tuesday at the provincial legislature.
Downey said the bill, if passed, would ensure anyone making an “honest effort” to follow public health guidelines while working or volunteering not be exposed to liability in civil proceedings.
He said the bill will not prevent lawsuits against those who willfully, or through “gross negligence”, endanger others.
Health-care workers and institutions, front line retail workers, and charities and non-profits would be covered by the bill. The legislation would also cover coaches, volunteers and minor sports associations.
Downey said it is retroactive to March 17, 2020, when Ontario first implemented emergency measures as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
CBC News first reported in June that Premier Doug Ford and his government were considering drafting such legislation. By then, a number of lawsuits had already been filed against long-term care providers in the province over the deaths of seniors from COVID-19.
Downey said in an interview that the legislation was only tabled Tuesday because the consultation process included a wide range of stakeholders from various sectors of Ontario’s economy and health-care system.
“We’re at a point where we’ve heard from stakeholders that they need and want this protection to continue to contribute to their communities. It’s not a reaction to anything, it’s been building, and now is the time to provide that protection,” Downey said.
Long Term Care Association welcomes new bill
Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that the legislation is welcome and the association calls on all parties to support it because it would provide protection to “institutions working in good faith on the front lines” in the fight against COVID-19.
“Liability protection is a necessary measure to stabilize and renew Ontario’s entire long-term care sector. Without it, many insurance companies will cease coverage, as they have already begun to do, putting homes across the province at risk and jeopardizing their expansion and renewal,” Duncan said.
The association represents nearly 70 per cent of Ontario’s 630 long-term care homes.
Duncan said there are more than 79,000 people in long-term care homes in Ontario and they deserve safe accommodations. As well, there are 36,000 residents and their families waiting for long-term care right now, and within 14 years, the number of Ontario seniors over 80 is expected to double.
“We need a strong long-term care sector that can respond to rapidly growing needs positioned to provide high quality and compassionate care,” she said.
“This approach, consistent with British Columbia, is recognition of the unprecedented nature of this virus that all front-line services faced. It in no way absolves responsibility when it comes to issues of gross negligence. There remains zero tolerance for the abuse and neglect of our seniors and any reckless or irresponsible operator should still be held accountable and will not be protected by this measure.”
Duncan also called on the federal government to implement what she called a federal liability “insurance back-stop program,” which she said is necessary for long-term care homes that are having difficulty securing or renewing insurance.
NDP, Green Party blast bill
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath blasted the bill, saying it will shield government and for-profit long-term care homes from accountability.
“More than 1,900 people have died in long-term care during this pandemic, shattering thousands of families. Doug Ford didn’t protect them — but is now protecting the very companies that let them die in horrible conditions,” Horwath said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I’m appalled at this move to deny families the justice, accountability and day in court they deserve.”
Mike Schreiner, Ontario Green Party leader, said he is concerned about the implications of the legislation for those contemplating suing long-term care homes where residents and staff died of COVID-19.
“Negligent long-term care homes do not deserve a Get out of Jail Free card for the lives that were stolen on their watch,” Schreiner said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I need to take the time to read this legislation fully, but I am very concerned about the potential for liability protection for the bad actors.”
Schreiner said there is nothing wrong with protection for sports organizations, community clubs and small businesses that inadvertently spread the virus even though they followed protocols.
“But there is a big difference between those acting in good faith and those whose chronic negligence led directly to COVID-19 deaths. Instead of fixing the crisis in nursing homes and guaranteeing better care, the premier is protecting those who were responsible for bad care.”
B.C. passed similar order this spring
British Columbia similarly passed a cabinet order this spring saying any person or corporation “providing an essential service” is not liable for damages resulting from COVID-19 infections.
The list of B.C. essential service providers granted immunity extends from front-line health workers to long-term care facilities and grocery stores. However, immunity does not apply in all circumstances. Someone could still be found liable in cases of gross negligence or for failing to follow public health guidance.