Senate Bill 321

Gov. Brian Kemp signs SB 321 sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (right), R-Rome, into law Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The measure removes some limitations on physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses, clearing the way for them to serve more patients.

Georgia hospitals and businesses will get some protection against COVID-19 related lawsuits under a Senate bill that was pushed through on the last day of the session.

SB 359, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, absolves a wide range of entities from damages unless the injury or death stems from gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.

“It waives liability if someone is substantially abiding by the rules,” Hufstetler said. “I thought it was a pretty reasonable balance.”

The bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, who spearheaded the somewhat controversial amendment of Hufstetler’s bill as the Georgia General Assembly drew to a close.

SB 359 had already crossed over to the House in late February as a bill restricting surprise medical billing, but an identical House bill moved faster and was ultimately signed.

It sat undisturbed until June 17, when it was transferred to Kelley’s Special Committee on Access to the Civil Justice System. There, it was redrafted — with Hufstetler’s input — as the Georgia COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act.

The measure was brought to the House floor on June 26, the last day of the session, and passed 104 to 56. Floyd County’s delegates, Reps. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome; Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee; and Mitchell Scoggins, R-Cartersville, all supported it.

SB 359 then went immediately to the Senate, where the substitute was approved 34 to 16.

Hufstetler said there was pushback from both the AFL-CIO and the National Federation of Independent Business but they were able to convince a coalition that it was necessary.

“Two extremes were not happy, but the hospitals and trial lawyers didn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “It’s one year only, for COVID only.”

It applies to a wide range of premises, covering healthcare facilities, medical providers and other business, nonprofit and government entities.

They can post signs on the door of their building stating that, under Georgia law, people are assuming the risk of contracting COVID-19 by entering.

Establishments also may print their admission tickets with the warning that a person “waives all civil liability against this premises owner and operator for any injuries caused by the inherent risk associated with contracting COVID-19 at public gatherings, except for gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm, by the individual or entity of the premises.”

The law applies to any claims until July 14, 2021.

♦ Gov. Brian Kemp also signed several other bills backed by Hufstetler at a ceremony in his office Tuesday.

SB 321 puts physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses under the same rules — giving both a little more authority in their scope of practice.

Hufstetler said it will boost access to healthcare in rural areas with a shortage of doctors and be easier for hospitals that employ numerous PAs and APRNs operating under different restrictions.

House Bill 1037 requires audits for film production companies using state tax credits. It was authored by Rep. Matt Dollar, R-Marietta. Hufstetler, who had been pushing for an audit of all targeted tax breaks, sponsored it in the Senate.

“New York and California have $300 million caps on their film tax credits. There’s $870 million applied for in Georgia,” he said.

While the film industry in the state has a major economic benefit, Hufstetler said, some entities are taking advantage of the lax supervision. He pointed to a Kennesaw State University study that indicated the program is costing the state about $64,000 a job.

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