Florida defense bar warned of deluge of lawsuits before tort reform took effect

Attorneys said “over 70,000 lawsuits were filed” in the state’s electronic filing system from March 18 through this week.

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The day before Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this year's tort reform bill, a statewide group of lawyers for Big Business concerns and others warned the head of the Florida Supreme Court of a buzzer-beater avalanche of lawsuits trying to slip in under the wire.

In a letter sent Thursday and provided to City & State, the Florida Defense Lawyers Association asked Chief Justice Carlos  Muñiz for an emergency order “allowing defendants additional time to respond to a complaint.”

And the Florida Justice Association, which represents the state's trial lawyers, countered with its own letter saying "the current situation is not an emergency and does not warrant the Court issuing orders outside the normal rules and procedures." 

The letter, by Kansas Gooden – a shareholder in the Boyd & Jenerette law firm – and other attorneys said “over 70,000 lawsuits were filed” in the state’s electronic filing system from March 18 to this Thursday “to avoid the impact of HB 837,” passed by the Legislature this week.

It was sent Friday to DeSantis, who quickly signed it “in a private ceremony on the Plaza level” of the Capitol, Florida Politics reported. The law is in effect immediately. 

Spokesperson Paul Flemming confirmed the court’s receipt of the FDLA letter, adding “staff and leadership are monitoring what is happening, as is standard practice. We get regular updates on filings from clerks of court and the E-Filing Authority that are important sources to aid the administration of the State Courts System.”

“This will cause defense firms and attorneys undue burden and stress,” the FDLA letter said. “There are not enough hours in the day to answer all of these complaints.” A request for comment is pending with Gooden, who said another 25,000 lawsuits were expected Friday.  

The legislation, strongly backed by the state’s corporate interests, includes provisions to limit litigation against businesses and insurance companies, such as lowering from four years to two years a statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits and mostly eliminating what’s called “one-way attorney fees” insurers have to pay to cover the costs of plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The News Service of Florida reported Friday that, during Senate debate Thursday, some lawmakers said they too had received reports of large numbers of lawsuits being filed in advance of the changes taking effect. That chamber voted 23-15 to OK the measure, after it was passed last week by the House 80-31.

The FDLA letter said an emergency administrative order would “allow insurance companies, defense attorneys and law firms to stagger responses to help manage the mountain of lawsuits coming at them.” By midday Friday, no related orders had issued from the court

That same day, FJA President Curry Pajcic – a Jacksonville personal injury lawyer – wrote Muñiz his group "will urge its members to work professionally with their colleagues in the defense bar" and "with the chief judges and the judges in each of the twenty (judicial) circuits to address the consequences resulting from the recent tort legislation." His letter was separately provided to City & State. 

"The concerns raised by the FDLA's letter can be addressed through professionalism, on a case-by-case basis, and by action at the circuit level. It does not require a one-size-fits-all, emergency order issued outside the normal rules and procedures," Pajcic wrote. "The FJA is ready to participate in an open and fair proceeding, along with the FDLA and other interested persons, to determine the best way for the judiciary to address the consequences of the tort legislation." 

Contact Jim Rosica at jrosica@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @JimRosicaFL

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