(The Center Square) – A ready-to-pass COVID-19-liability bill could await Florida lawmakers when they convene in March for the 2021 legislative session.
Companion Senate and House measures seeking to shield Florida businesses from “frivolous” lawsuits related to the pandemic already have advanced through initial hearings and could secure all three required committee nods in pre-session deliberations.
Senate Bill 72, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, advanced Monday through the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 7-4 partisan vote.
SB 72’s House companion, House Bill 7, filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, was reported favorably out of the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee on Jan. 13. It next goes before the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee.
Drafted from model legislation developed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the bills extend COVID-19 protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits and religious institutions that make a “good-faith effort” to follow government health guidelines.
Under the legislation, liability protections would apply retroactively to a newly filed lawsuit, and plaintiffs would be required to obtain affidavits from Florida physicians attesting that defendants’ acts or omissions caused the damages, injuries or deaths.
Businesses that courts deem have “substantially” complied with government-issued health standards or guidance would be immune from liability.
While the Florida Office of the State Courts does not have data on COVID-19 liability lawsuits filed so far against Florida businesses, a recent Florida TaxWatch report found 490 COVID-19-related suits have been filed in the state.
The report estimated 356,000 jobs could be at risk without liability protections, and the state could see a $28 billion loss in economic activity.
“Businesses need certainty,” Brandes said Monday while introducing SB 72 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting only businesses that act with “gross negligence” should be subject to civil suits in a pandemic.
The bills exclude liability protections for health care providers. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has determined protections for health care providers require a separate bill and assigned House Health & Human Services Committee Chairperson Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, to develop a proposal.
The Florida Hospital Association, Florida Health Care Association, Florida Chapter of the American College of Surgeons, Florida Society of Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery, and Florida Society of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeons are among medical associations and trade groups expected to lobby for expansive liability protections for health care operators.
Meanwhile, chambers of commerce, restaurant associations and other business groups have been calling for liability protections since the pandemic gripped the U.S. last March.
A federal effort has stalled, but in 2020, 14 states enacted broad liability restrictions that protect many or all businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), with a dozen more state Legislatures citing COVID-19-lawsuit protections as a top 2021 priority.
In addition to Florida, bills proposing pandemic liability protections have been filed in Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Montana, the NCSL said, with governors and legislative leaders in Arizona and South Carolina, and business groups in New Hampshire and Texas, lobbying to get such measures on this year’s legislative dockets.
Proponents assert litigation and the cost of legal fees will cripple businesses, individuals, schools and nonprofit organizations and deter the organizations from reopening. Supporters say liability protections will shape how businesses make decisions.
Opponents include trial lawyers’ associations, labor unions and worker advocacy groups that argue liability protections would harm the public by permitting defendants to commit negligent acts with legal protections.