An outsized battle looms in Washington, as trade associations for trial lawyers push their own vision of open-ended lawsuits while groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce come down on the side of restricting litigation over coronavirus. The brewing fight in Congress, too, could become a hinge-point on whether there is a fourth major coronavirus relief package that could pass and be signed into law in the coming weeks and if there is one what it looks like.
The issue that confronts lawmakers is how to limit the scope of litigation over coronavirus while also not giving away too much to the business community.
A trial lawyer representing part of a group of celebrity chefs suing insurance giants over the pandemic, described the forthcoming fight in a quote to the Washington Post as what he said is “going to be the most expensive legal battle in history.” He then predicted: The insurance companies are going to win some of those, and they’re going to lose some of those. But in the meantime, the businesses are going to fail. People are going to be out of work.
Houghtaling is a managing partner at Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling LLC, a firm in the New Orleans suburb Metairie, Louisiana. Houghtaling is testifying before the Democrat-led House Small Business Committee on Thursday afternoon, where lawmakers will discuss the liability issues as Congress considers potentially granting a liability shield to companies nationwide upon reopening – something many Republicans consider imperative to successfully return to normal as a society.
Houghtaling is representing Thomas Keller, the celebrity chef who the Washington Post’s Tim Carman described as “the mastermind behind the three-star Michelin restaurants Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California.” Keller is one of many restauranteurs nationwide suing their insurance companies because the insurance companies are not paying them for the shutdowns caused by COVID-19.
“The owners are pressing carriers to honor business-interruption policies during an outbreak that has wreaked so much financial havoc that it could bankrupt insurance companies and put at risk claims not related to covid-19,” Carman wrote in the Post.
In these particular kinds of cases, what these trial lawyers like Houghtaling and the others representing these various restaurants are looking for is for insurance companies to honor business interruption policies or to cover their clients like they would in a natural disaster even if the policies do not explicitly cover pandemics.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg for trial lawyers as the reopening battle moves forward coast to coast – cases that could be forthcoming include against states for various policies they implemented like New York Gov.
According to Politico, the American Association for Justice – a national collective of trial lawyers – released polling on the issue that forecast many potential lines of litigation that the attorneys may see coming.
“The trial lawyers hired Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm, which surveyed more than 1,200 voters online last week,” Politico’s Theodoric Meyer wrote earlier in May. “The pollsters told voters that companies want to prevent workers and consumers who contract coronavirus from suing them ‘even if they could demonstrate that the company engaged in unsafe practices.’ Sixty-four percent of respondents said they opposed giving companies such immunity, while 36 percent supported it.”
The Chamber of Commerce, which is squarely on the other side of the fight, released its own polling according to Politico showing the exact opposite.
“A poll conducted days earlier by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform found the opposite among 800 voters surveyed by phone,” Politico’s Meyer wrote. “Asked whether ‘Congress should protect many businesses and types of companies from lawsuits related to the coronavirus,’ 61 percent of voters agreed and 27 percent said no.”
But no matter who is paying out and who is receiving payments as a result of litigation, and no matter who wins and who loses lawsuits, the one group that always comes out on top is the trial lawyers. That “most expensive legal battle in history” that Houghtaling describes has but one absolute winner: the trial lawyers who bring the cases.