COVID-19 Tort Reform

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In 2020 and 2021, 44 states and Washington, D.C. passed laws that limited tort liability related to COVID-19. The most common reforms immunized health care providers from malpractice or similar liability. A second category is limited liability to individuals or businesses for exposing others to the novel coronavirus. And a third category protected manufacturers of supplies used to detect and prevent COVID- 19 from products liability suits. The goals of these reforms included protecting health care providers from uncertainty in providing care for a novel disease, limiting the macroeconomic consequences of the pandemic, and encouraging the distribution of critical supplies to avoid shortages. States providing immunity assumed that institutions and individuals alike would react to reforms, as theory predicts, by engaging in more of the immunized activities. In general, the literature supports the assumption that institutions, like hospitals or manufacturers of face masks and COVID-19 tests, change their behavior in response to tort reform. Yet there is little empirical evidence demonstrating how tort law affects risk-taking by individuals. The lack of evidence about the relationship between tort law and individual decision-making is of broad interest, as one of the primary goals of tort law is to incentivize efficient levels of risk-taking. This Article provides novel empirical evidence on the effects of COVID-19 tort reform on public health. The analysis yields three important results. First, it shows that medical liability reforms had counterproductive public health effects. States that immunized health care providers from tort suits arising out of COVID-19 care experienced 20% more COVID-19 cases and 5% more COVID-19 hospitalizations. Second, the results demonstrate that exposure reforms counterintuitively decreased COVID-19 cases by making it easier for businesses and other institutions to require customers to comply with public health guidance. Third, the results reveal that tort law had very little effect, if any, on the precautions individuals chose to avoid contracting or spreading the disease. The third result is broadly interesting, as it indicates that tort law will be a weak incentive to individuals whenever they are choosing a level of care that can protect themselves or others.

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Health Matrix: The Journal of Law-Medicine

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