Florida Republicans hand DeSantis first major legislative win

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature on Thursday sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis a sweeping crackdown on lawsuits despite protests from some members of his own party that the bill is a giveaway to insurance companies and is unfair to the families of crime victims.

The bill is the first of DeSantis’ legislative priorities lawmakers sent to his desk, setting up what is expected to be a string of legislative victories for the governor ahead of his expected run for president later this year. It also hands a stinging loss to trial attorneys, a group that has been one of the few constant sources of campaign donations to Democrats in the state.

Republican lawmakers, who hold supermajorities in the Legislature, are moving rapidly to carry out the governor’s wish list on everything from enacting new anti-immigration measures, revamping the death penalty, overhauling tenure and curriculum at universities to making it easier to sue the media for defamation and banning gender affirming care for minors.

But legislators moved the bill targeting lawsuits the fastest. DeSantis called for the changes ahead of the session, and it’s also a top priority of major special interest groups including the state’s main business lobbies.

The bill shortens the time plaintiffs can file negligence lawsuits and contains a provision that would help property owners in lawsuits alleging lax security.

Some of the biggest and potentially most consequential changes, however, center on the state’s insurance carriers. The measures — which include changes to how attorney fees are paid — are designed to bring down the number of lawsuits filed against insurance companies, including those where business customers are plaintiffs. Some of the changes have long been sought by insurers but have been rejected by previous GOP legislative leaders.

Insurance has been a volatile industry in Florida due, in part, to the high number of hurricanes that ravage the state. In recent years, insurance rates have shot up while at the same time enrollment has spiked in Citizens Property Insurance, the state-funded insurer of last resort. But supporters of the bill contend that the measure was needed to fix a “toxic lawsuit” environment in Florida.

“We have a fundamental problem in Florida when you turn on your TV or your radio and the ad says if you have been an injured call an attorney first,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, the main sponsor of the legislation who said people in the state try to win a “litigation jackpot.”

But other legislators — including a handful of Republicans who voted against the bill — said the legislation goes too far and will harm consumers. They expressed deep skepticism it would do anything to stem an ongoing rise in insurance rates.

“There are 22 million Floridians who will now be exposed to higher risk, less safety and fewer options to hold wrongdoers accountable,” said Sen. Erin Grall (R-Fort Pierce). “Our constitution says liberty and justice for all not the few — all. And this bill is not justice for all.”

Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) called the bill “a gift from our governor to big businesses at the expense of our citizens and small businesses.”

The Senate voted 23-15 for the bill, HB 837, with five Republicans voting no and one Democratic legislator voting in favor of the measure. The House approved the bill last week.

The special interest groups that warred over the bill are bracing with rapid fallout from the legislation, claiming that thousands of lawsuits will be filled from some of the state’s well-known firms in order to get ahead of the new regulations.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce also announced it would start a legal fund to help defend the new law and that former Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson, an appointee of former Gov. Rick Scott, would lead the effort.

Curry Pajcic, the president of the Florida Justice Association, did not say whether his group or others would move to block the changes after DeSantis signs them into law. But Pajcic, in a statement, said that “in just three short weeks, Florida lawmakers rushed through some of the largest rights-grabbing legislation in recent history.” He called it “a direct assault on the rights of every Floridian by insurance companies and corporate elites who think they can dictate which rights should be preserved and which can be tossed aside.”

Legislators are expected to quickly pass many of the governor’s other top priorities by the midway point of the session in early April — which will be shortly before DeSantis is scheduled to take another out-of-state trip including a visit to early primary state New Hampshire. DeSantis is widely expected to announce his 2024 presidential bid after the annual legislative session ends.

While Florida’s 60-day session is condensed compared to some other states, lawmakers usually handle high profile or contentious bills near the end. Part of the calculus is that in the past, legislative leaders tie the fate of major bills to negotiations with the annual budget, which is the one piece of legislation lawmakers are supposed to approve each year.

Democrats contend the torrid pace is to assist DeSantis’ expected presidential bid, but GOP legislators have brushed aside that suggestion.

“What really is the priority here isn’t any future election,” said Rep. Daniel Perez, a Miami Republican and the House Rules chair. “The priority here is why is Florida leading the country in so many different categories. Why are people flocking to Florida? It’s because of the policies we passed and this legislative session is a continuation of that.”