Florida House passes far-reaching lawsuit limits

Supporters say the bill will bring balance to a system that has been plagued by excessive litigation. Opponents counter that the bill would punish injured people who have legitimate claims and that it would only benefit insurance companies.

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With Speaker Paul Renner describing the bill as “transformative,” the Florida House on Friday passed a package of changes that would help shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits.

The Republican-controlled House voted 80-31 along almost-straight party lines to pass the bill (HB 837), a top priority of business groups that touched off a lobbying battle including opponents such as plaintiffs’ attorneys. The Senate is poised to take up the issue, after House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the details.

Renner, R-Palm Coast, and other supporters said the bill was designed to bring balance to a system that has been plagued by excessive litigation. Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, said Florida is “drowning in a flood of lawsuits.”

“Today (with) this bill, Florida charts a new course,” Overdorf said. “Florida charts a course away from the judicial hellhole.”

But opponents said the bill would punish injured people who have legitimate claims and that it would only benefit insurance companies.

“What we’ve asked for you (members of the public) to do is to go out on a hope and a prayer once again that the benevolent insurance companies will give you a break some years down the road after you lost your home, after you lost your vehicle, after you suffered catastrophic injuries for which you will not recover, then perhaps, maybe, you’ll find some justice,” Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, said. “We have done the people of Florida, here, no justice.”

Renner, an attorney, spearheaded the bill, which he said will help eliminate “gamesmanship” in the legal system and lead to savings that will ripple through the economy.

Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said residents and small-business people are suffering from high insurance premiums and other costs. He said lawmakers “are trying to take care of people who are hurt, and we’re trying to make sure that people can still earn a living.”

“This bill is designed to restore a sense of sanity and balance with due compassion to all sides,” Black said. “So don’t demonize us. Just stop it.”

As an example of the issues involved, the bill would revamp 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 bill, defendants would effectively have to be at least 51 percent at fault before they could be forced to pay damages.

Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said the comparative-negligence change would upend a law in place for decades. She said the bill would give insurance companies a “get-out-of jail free card.”

“To all the regular people who are working their jobs, paying their insurance rates and expecting their insurance companies to have their back, this bill basically says if an insurance company is 49 percent liable, they pay nothing,” Gantt said. “They pay zero, and you as the regular Floridian, our constituents, will absorb 100 percent of the loss. How? Where’s the logic? There’s no logic there.”

Other changes in the bill include:

— 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.

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

— 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.

— Helping shield owners of property such as apartment complexes from premises-liability lawsuits if people are injured in crimes. Courts would consider the fault of “all persons” — including the criminals — in determining liability.

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