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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Florida poised for major changes to legal system

Legislation aimed at reducing frivolous lawsuits will have far-reaching effects on insurance and negligence litigation.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Florida lawmakers are expected to pass a sweeping tort reform law this week that would change large swaths of the civil justice system, including statutes covering attorney fees, medical reimbursement and liability in negligence cases.

Supporters, including the Florida Retail Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, say the state has too many frivolous lawsuits that hurt small businesses and raise insurance rates. However, critics note there is nothing in the bills that address rising insurance rates and argue consumers will lose needed protections against the deep pockets of large corporations.

The legislation has already prompted attorneys across the state to file an unprecedented number of cases in anticipation of the law’s passage.

The Republican-majority Florida House of Representatives passed HB 837 on Friday, largely along partisan lines.

The Florida Senate, which also has a Republican majority, will vote on their own measure, SB 236, sometime this week. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has already signaled his support for the legislation.

One of the major changes 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. However, the Florida House did add an amendment that would allow the insured to file a separate declaratory judgment case to determine coverage.

Lawmakers also seek to limit bad faith claims with insurance companies, allowing them to pay the claim or the lesser end of policy limits if paid within 90 days.

Jeffrey Liggio, a civil attorney based in West Palm Beach, said the proposed law will hurt the most vulnerable.

“People like me represent real people,” he said. “People that have horrendous illnesses and enormous problems with the loss of their insurance or the denial of their benefits.”

Liggio said the current statutes give him the ability to represent individuals who may have smaller claims without them having to pay any fees.

“I can represent people who have a case with a $10,000 or $20,000 claim and fight for years without having to charge them a fee,” he said. “Those kinds of numbers for working people and those who are struggling is an enormous amount of money.”

Liggio also does not accept claims that this type of tort reform would lower insurance rates.

“That’s a soundbite,” he said. “If the Legislature was really concerned about the rates, the simple thing is to put something in the rates statute.”

He added, “A simple amendment to that statute to preclude including statutory attorney’s fees when the insurer’s insured prevail in litigation against the insurer in the rate base would go a long way to resolving the argument that fee awards are causing the rates to increase."

The reform legislation also affects negligence lawsuits. For one, the statute of limitations to bring a negligence case would shrink from four years to two years. In addition, the plaintiff would not receive compensation if they are more than 50% responsible. Currently, compensation is based on comparative fault.

Another section of the bill 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 last week. “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.

Backers of the legislation have called Florida a “judicial hellhole” that puts “billboard trial lawyers” over consumers.

“As a Florida employer, our company sees many frivolous lawsuits,” said Charles Bailes III, CEO of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. “This restricts our ability to hire additional team members, to build additional stores and to reinvest back into the local communities we serve. This bill, which will limit frivolous litigation, is good for Florida.”

Floridians seem to disagree, according to a recent poll conducted by Metropolitan Research for the advocacy group Accountable Florida.

The survey of 1,000 people released Wednesday asked a handful of liability coverage questions. Most respondents – 85% – said hotels and apartment complexes should be financially responsible for injuries or deaths that result from the lack of security.

An even larger majority of those polled – 89% – believed health insurance companies that wrongfully deny coverage for necessary treatments should have to pay attorney fees for people who were forced to sue.

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Categories / Courts, Government, Law, Politics, Regional

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