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Florida lawmakers send a lawsuit limits bill to the governor

destroyed homes behind a search and rescue team
Gerald Herbert
FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. file photo, rescue personnel perform a search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.

The Florida Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a far-reaching bill aimed at helping shield businesses and insurance companies from lawsuits, with supporters saying it will rein in “billboard lawyers” and opponents saying it will harm consumers.

The bill (HB 837) was passed last week by the House, meaning it is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.

Business and insurance groups have long sought such changes, contending that Florida has been plagued by excessive litigation that drives up costs. As the heavily lobbied bill moved through the House and Senate, supporters often blamed what they called “billboard lawyers.”

“We have a fundamental problem in Florida when you turn on your TV or your radio, and the ad says, ‘If you have been injured, call an attorney first. Do not call your insurance. Call an attorney.’ That is a problem. It’s not right,” Senate bill sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said. “It’s because current laws allow this situation to happen, and people believe they won the jackpot or the litigation lottery.”

But opponents said the bill is a gift to the insurance industry without any assurances that it will lower rates for such things as auto insurance.

“Instead of improving the lives of the average person, it will absolve bad actors of their duties and responsibilities,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is a plaintiffs’ attorney. “After all, these large corporate entities can afford to pay their attorneys whatever they need for however long they need them. Many of our friends and neighbors and constituents back in our districts won’t have such a luxury.”

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 23-15 to pass the bill. One Democrat, Linda Stewart of Orlando, voted for the bill. Four Republicans — Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island, Jason Brodeur of Sanford, Erin Grall of Vero Beach and Jonathan Martin of Fort Myers — voted against it.

Business groups immediately sent out a flurry of statements praising passage of the bill. In one of the statements, Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson called the bill the “most meaningful legal reform in Florida’s history.”

“With the Legislature’s final passage of this bill, Florida is well on its way to putting an end to the tort tax that was forced on Florida businesses and consumers by billboard lawyers looking to line their pockets through frivolous lawsuits” Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Brewster Bevis said.

But Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents plaintiffs’ attorneys, issued a statement that said the bill “significantly limits the ability of Floridians to hold wrongdoers accountable and effectively gives big insurance the keys to our state and our court process.”

"This legislation weakens accountability for insurance companies and multibillion-dollar corporations by creating roadblocks to the ability of average Floridians to be able to access the courts,” Pajcic said.

The bill includes a series of changes that include:

  • Revamping laws about “comparative negligence.” Under current law, juries determine each party’s percentage of fault in negligence lawsuits, with damages awarded based on the percentages. For example, if a plaintiff is determined to be 60% at fault and a defendant is 40% at fault, the defendant would be required to pay 40% of the damages amount. But under the bill, defendants would effectively have to be at least 51% at fault before they could be forced to pay damages.
  • Reducing from four years to two years a statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits.
  • Largely eliminating what are known as “one-way” attorney fees in lawsuits against insurers. One-way attorney fees have long required insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who are successful in lawsuits. The bill includes a narrow exception that would allow one-way attorney fees in a type of lawsuit known as a “declaratory action” if insurers totally deny claims, bill sponsors said.
  • Helping shield owners of property such as apartment complexes from premises-liability lawsuits if people are injured in crimes. Judges and juries would consider the fault of “all persons” — including the criminals — in determining liability.
  • Making it harder to pursue “bad faith” lawsuits against insurers. Generally, bad-faith cases involve allegations that insurers did not properly handle and settle claims and can be costly for insurers.

During debate Thursday on the Senate floor, the bill’s opponents repeatedly criticized insurance companies.

“We have blindly accepted the insurance industry’s anecdotes (and) statistics to move this omnibus bill depriving Floridians of their constitutional rights to access courts,” Grall, a plaintiffs’ attorney, said.

But Senate and Banking Insurance Chairman Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican who is an insurance agent, said that “by and large, insurance companies treat their customers fairly. Guess what, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in business for very long.”

“What it (the bill) does take away are claimants getting $1,000 and attorneys getting $50,000 or $100,000 to represent them on that $1,000 claim,” Boyd said.