WashU Against Corporate Immunity

Andrew Martin

We demand that Washington University disavow its role lobbying for corporate immunity and pledge that it will not require students to waive liability when we return to campus.

Corporate lobbying groups are pushing Congress for blanket immunity from COVID-19 related lawsuits. One of those groups, the American Council on Education, has demanded that universities be given immunity with their reopening. Washington University in St. Louis is a member of ACE. As WashU students, we oppose corporate immunity because it will enable universities to put the lives of students and employees in danger with impunity.

Normally, if a university fails to take basic safety precautions, harmed students and employees can file a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for their medical and other expenses. Civil liability incentivizes schools to anticipate dangers and plan for safety. If Congress grants colleges and universities immunity from COVID-19 related lawsuits, students and employees will lose the only means we have to hold the school accountable for taking unreasonable risks with our health.

The risks of COVID-19 are not borne evenly. People with pre-existing conditions develop severe illness from COVID-19 at alarming rates. Due to systemic racism and economic inequality, black and brown persons of color are more likely to have these pre-existing conditions. Black St. Louisans are killed by COVID-19 at twice the rate of their white peers.

Blanket corporate immunity could shield universities and other employers if they:

  • Unreasonably fail to provide students and campus workers with PPE

  • Do not take steps to ensure that students can socially distance in class and on campus

  • Fail to warn students when someone they have been in contact with has tested positive

  • Ignore guidance from state and federal public health officials


Supporters of immunity see it as necessary in order to shield schools and businesses as they reopen. This concern is misplaced. Tort law does not require universities to be perfect; it only expects schools to act reasonably based on knowledge available at the time. Even if a student contracts COVID-19 on campus, the school is protected from liability if it takes reasonable measures to keep students and workers safe.

We call on Washington University to disavow its role in lobbying for corporate immunity and pledge that it will not to require students to waive liability in order to return to school.


To: Andrew Martin
From: [Your Name]

Andrew Martin
Office of the Chancellor
Washington University in St. Louis
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130

Dear Chancellor Martin:

Legislation is currently being considered in Congress to provide businesses broad civil immunity from COVID-19 related lawsuits. It has come to our attention that the American Council on Education (“ACE”) is lobbying for universities to be included in the proposed immunity. As a member of ACE, Washington University is implicated in this insidious campaign. As students and workers, we oppose corporate immunity because it will allow businesses and institutions to put our lives—and those of our friends, family, and neighbors—at risk with impunity.

We are requesting WashU disavow ACE’s lobbying campaign and publicly oppose the immunity proposal being considered in Congress. We also ask that WashU set an example by pledging that it will not force students and employees to sign liability waivers to return to campus. We believe that taking this action aligns with WashU’s values and its leadership on issues of public health.

As you know, the risks of COVID-19 are not borne evenly. WashU recently partnered in a study that found COVID-19 has disproportionately concentrated in Black neighborhoods in the St. Louis region. See Mo. Hosp. Ass’n, The Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black and African American Communities in the St. Louis Region (May 7, 2020) https://bit.ly/COVID19_STL. Due to systemic racism and long-term inequality, Black and Indigenous People of Color are also more likely to have underlying conditions that put them at high risk of developing severe illness and dying from the virus. Simultaneously, these communities are more likely to work in close proximity to eaczh other, have access to worse health insurance, and have little—if any—paid sick leave.

We believe that civil immunity will exacerbate these inequities because it will annihilate the primary incentive businesses and institutions have to provide employees PPE, minimize contact, or take other measures to limit the transmission of coronavirus. Because WashU students and workers of color have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, we urge WashU to lead on this vital issue.

Congress is scheduled to debate the coronavirus relief bill next week. Unfortunately, the proposal to provide businesses and institutions civil immunity has gone largely unnoticed by the larger public. We are concerned that congressional leaders will not fight for our health without a vigorous public debate. As a national leader in public health, Washington University has the platform to shine a light on the harm corporate immunity will do to our community. Please stand with us.

We would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience to further discuss WashU’s leadership on this important public health issue.

Sincerely,

WashU Parity Project