The Florida House on Friday passed sweeping protections for businesses, governments and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a top priority of Republicans and the state’s business leaders.
The measure, House Bill 7, would make it much harder to successfully sue businesses and governments for claims stemming from COVID-19 by raising the legal standard and giving defendants immunity if they were following government-issued safety guidelines.
Friday’s 83-31 vote in the House split mostly along party lines, highlighting the philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats on how best to help the state recover from the pandemic, which forced millions of Floridians out of work over the last year.
Republican lawmakers said the intent is to stop frivolous lawsuits and protect jobs.
“If you want to get back to work, you have to have a job to go to,” said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, on Friday. “Responsible businesses have to be able to reopen safely without the fear of getting sued.”
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said lawmakers should be giving grants to businesses to cover the cost of protective equipment instead of shielding them from lawsuits.
“The biggest problem our small businesses have is not getting sued,” Driskell said. “It’s having enough customers who feel safe to come to their restaurant, their barbershop.”
The bill was the second to pass the House in this year’s legislative session, which began Tuesday. It needs to pass the Florida Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, where he can sign it into law. DeSantis has said he supports the measure.
The bill does not apply to medical providers, however. A separate bill, protecting nursing homes and hospitals from COVID-related lawsuits, is also likely to pass this legislative session.
Both measures have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest corporations, which seek each year to limit how often they can be sued.
Under the bill:
▪ Anyone filing a lawsuit would be required to include an affidavit from a physician who can attest “within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the plaintiff’s COVID-19-related damages, injury, or death occurred as a result of the defendant’s acts or omissions.”
▪ Non-medically-related businesses, educational and religious institutions and governments are immune from COVID-related lawsuits if a judge determines the defendants made “a good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance at the time the cause of action accrued.”
▪ If a judge determines the defendant did not act in good faith, the case can proceed, but the standard for winning it is higher. Instead of showing a “preponderance of evidence” to make their case, the plaintiff must prove gross negligence by “clear and convincing evidence.”
Democrats, who are a minority in both the House and Senate, argued Friday that it would be difficult to find doctors to make such affidavits. And they said the state’s ever-shifting guidelines made it unclear whether a defendant was complying with a government’s “standards or guidance” required in the bill.
“If a mayor makes comments at a press conference, is that standards or guidance?” said Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach.
Hardy also questioned what he described as circular logic: A government can’t be sued for creating, and following, bad guidance. He said that if the bill was in effect in New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t be sued for ordering hospitalized COVID-19 patients return to nursing homes, which is believed to have contributed to the high number of nursing home deaths in that state.
“He was following his own standard, and people got sick and died because he was following his standards,” Hardy said.
Democrats and trial lawyers have also argued that there have been so few lawsuits filed that passing a law to stop them fixes a problem that doesn’t exist.
But at least 53 COVID-related cases have already been filed against companies, including medical providers, and governments in Florida, according to data provided by the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a corporate-backed nonprofit that advocates for tort reform.
Cruise lines have been sued by customers and employees on allegations of not protecting them from the virus. More than 20 jail inmates in Jacksonville, representing themselves, have accused the sheriff’s office of transferring sick inmates into the healthy population. Other businesses have been sued for not requiring that their customers wear masks.
And Publix was sued last year after a deli worker in Miami Beach died from COVID-19. The family of the employee, 70-year-old Gerardo Gutierrez, alleges that he asked to wear a mask when the pandemic began, but Publix refused.