Arizona businesses with vaccine mandates would face $500K lawsuits under GOP proposal

 Photo by A. Martin UW Photography | Getty Images

Employees who aren’t granted religious exemptions could file suit alleging injury

By Gloria Gomez/Don Bolles Fellow

Arizonan businesses would be on the hook for half a million dollars in damages if they refuse a religious exemption from an employee who later experiences significant injury as a result of getting vaccinated under a proposal advancing in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Employers who both deny a religious exemption and require a vaccination for continued employment would open themselves up to lawsuits from employees who report adverse effects. If employees sue, they stand to gain a minimum of $500,000 — more if the court finds the damages and costs of the lawsuit are higher. By contrast, the average worker’s compensation settlement is around $20,000. 

House Bill 2043, introduced by Prescott Republican Rep. Quang Nguyen, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning. From there, it’ll move to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Donny Rodenkirk, from Nguyen’s district, told the committee that his wife’s employer denied her religious exemption request, which forced her to take a vaccine that he claimed negatively impacted her health, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures. 

Nguyen’s bill does not indicate who decides whether the reported injury was the result of vaccination or how that determination is made. No medical diagnosis is required to sue an employer. 

Tom Savage, a lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, noted that the bill isn’t clear about what constitutes a “significant injury” related to a vaccination, which could lead to costly litigation because it’s left open to interpretation. Deciding which injuries are caused by the vaccine is also muddy, given injuries could arise from a host of unrelated factors. 

“We believe this bill could subject taxpayers to pay for unsubstantiated injury claims,” he said.

Do I think it’s excessive? Yeah, I think it’s meant to be. It’s to send a message.

– Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley

Serious adverse effects from the vaccine are incredibly rare. One case study of a man with sudden onset non-motor seizures after being vaccinated was unable to link the two, and posited instead that the condition may have been caused by genetic factors and might be entirely unrelated to the vaccine. An investigation of more than 19,500 recently vaccinated adults found the incidence of very serious adverse effects to be extremely low. Allergic reactions occurred in just 0.3% of participants after the first dose. 

In spite of scarce evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes adverse effects, skepticism about its safety persists. A Census Bureau survey found that vaccine hesitancy in Arizona was around 11.1% in October of last year. In a state of more than 7 million, that’s a little over 800,000 Arizonans who have reservations about the vaccine. Among this subgroup, 58.8% didn’t trust the vaccines themselves and 50.2% cited mistrust of the government.  

Mike Huckins, the chief lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said approving the bill would have consequences for local businesses. 

“Employees already have a remedy through the worker’s compensation fund,” he said. 

HB2043 allows for damages awarded in addition to any worker’s compensation the employee may pursue — it doesn’t rule out access to it. The $500,000 in damages would be a sizable financial burden for most businesses, Huckins said. The potential harm makes no distinction between a business of two people and a business of 5,000. 

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, responded by asking if it was moral to hold someone’s job “hostage” until they were vaccinated against their will. Huckins said he recognized there were very personal beliefs at stake, but his organization is defending employer’s rights. Employees’ religious beliefs are already protected under state law, he noted.

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