TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — On Friday night, in a closed-door ceremony shut out to reporters, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law one of the most sweeping tort reform bills in the state’s history, targeting attorney fees, medical reimbursement and liability in negligence cases.
Unlike many of the bills winding their way through the Florida Legislature this spring, HB 837 and its companion bill SB 236 sailed through the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate and became one of the first laws signed by DeSantis this year.
“Florida has been considered a judicial hellhole for far too long and we are desperately in need of legal reform that brings us more in line with the rest of the country,” the Republican governor said at the signing.
Hailed as the antidote to frivolous lawsuits and rising insurance rates by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and those in the insurance industry, the law radically changes long-standing statutes that critics contend allow ordinary Floridians to pursue claims against companies with much deeper pockets.
“In just three short weeks, Florida lawmakers rushed through some of the largest rights-grabbing legislation in recent history,” said Florida Justice Association President Curry Pajcic. “This legislation weakens accountability for insurance companies and multi-billion-dollar corporations by creating roadblocks to the ability of average Floridians to be able to access the courts.”
One of the major changes in the tort reform legislation concerns “one-way” attorney fees. The century-old law requires insurance companies to pay the attorney fees of policyholders if they successfully sue over a claim.
Under the proposed law, each party would pay their own legal fees.
This can have a dramatic effect on a policyholder’s ability to sue, argued Jeffrey Liggio, a civil attorney from West Palm Beach.
“Yes, you get your $20,000, but then you have to pay 30% or 40% to a lawyer,” Liggio said. “Those kinds of numbers sometimes for working people and people who are struggling is an enormous amount of money.”
The legislation also limits bad faith claims with insurance companies, allowing them to pay the claim or the lesser end of policy limits if paid within 90 days.
Lawmakers also fought to change Florida’s statutes on comparative fault in negligence cases. Under the new statute, the plaintiff would not receive compensation if they are more than 50% responsible. The statute of limitations also shrinks from four years to two years.
Another section of the law specifically targets premises liability lawsuits. In cases where someone was attacked on a property, a jury would have to consider the fault of the criminal, which could limit the liability of other parties, such as the property owner.
This provision drew the ire of two parents whose children were killed in the Parkland shooting when they showed up to committee hearings.
“Agencies that allowed a killer on campus should not be able to avoid responsibility by simply pointing to the criminal,” Damian Loughran, father of slain 14-year-old Cara Marie Loughran, told lawmakers. “I think this bill will give schools less incentive to better security and this is bad policy.”
Other provisions deal with medical claims. One would let a jury know if an attorney refers a client to a certain medical provider. Another limits the cost of care to just above Medicare and Medicaid rates, which supporters say will ensure doctors do not inflate costs.
"This is a watershed moment for Florida,” said Michael Carlson, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, in a statement. “Florida leaders stood up for what is fair and just. This legislation blocks avenues for the unnecessary litigation that has been plaguing our state for decades and has come to a breaking point.”
Concerns over the law prompted attorneys across the state to file an unprecedented number of cases over the last few weeks, clogging court dockets and sending court administrators scrambling.
Last week, the Florida Defense Lawyers Association sent a letter to Florida Supreme Court Justice Carlos Munoz asking for an emergency administrative order that would allow defendants more time to respond to a complaint.
“This drastic increase in lawsuits will create a statewide issue that will impact the rights of defendants,” wrote attorney Kansas Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette. “This will cause defense firms and attorneys undue burden and stress. There are not enough hours in the day to answer all of these complaints.”
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