Lawsuit limits sought by business groups emerge in Florida Senate

SB 236 would shield businesses, insurance companies from lawsuits

Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (File) (Associated Press)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After the Florida House started moving forward last week with controversial changes to shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits, a Senate Republican on Thursday filed a bill that largely mirrors the House plan.

The proposed changes, which have been long sought by business groups, have touched off a lobbying fight as the annual legislative session is poised to start Tuesday.

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The Senate bill (SB 236), filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, includes some differences in details from the House version (HB 837). But big picture, they both would make changes such as:

— 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. Lawmakers in December eliminated one-way attorney fees in lawsuits against property insurers, but the bills would extend that to other lines of insurance, such as in auto-insurance cases.

— Reducing from four years to two years a statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits.

— 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 percent at fault and a defendant is 40 percent at fault, the defendant would be required to pay 40 percent of the damages amount. But under the bills, defendants would effectively have to be at least 51 percent at fault before they could be forced to pay damages.

— 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.

— Revising laws about evidence of medical expenses that can be admitted in court in personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee last week approved the House version of the bill after more than four hours of discussion and public testimony. While business and insurance groups have lined up behind the plan, plaintiffs’ attorneys and other opponents contend the changes would harm people who deserve to be compensated for injuries.

After last week’s meeting, House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, held a news conference that included leaders of groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Trucking Association.

“All the big corporations with an army of lawyers, they can maintain and fight back against some of those lawsuits,” Renner, an attorney, said. “But really our small businesses, where most of our Floridians work, are one threatening lawsuit away from going out of business. Now, having said that, we want to make sure that people that have legitimate claims can bring those claims.”

But Rep. Hillary Cassel, a Dania Beach Democrat who is an attorney, said insurance companies need to be held accountable when they “don’t do the right thing.”

“This bill does a lot of harm, and the only good it does is puts more money in insurance companies’ pockets,” Cassel said.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, had indicated in recent weeks that the Senate’s bill would be similar to the House version. Also, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled support for the issue known as “tort reform.”

But the House and Senate will have to work out some differences in the bills during the upcoming session. As an example, the Senate would not apply the comparative-fault changes to medical-malpractice lawsuits. The House version does not include such an exemption.

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About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.