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Bills filed to protect businesses, churches, and schools from COVID-related suits

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Sen. Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes

Citing a need to boost the economy, lawmakers in the House and Senate have filed bills that are designed to protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits.

Both bills would grant businesses, churches, and schools immunity from COVID-19-related liability if they can prove they “substantially” complied with government health standards or guidelines.

“If we’re going to allow businesses to reopen in Florida, we’re going to have to make lawsuit protection a priority,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Rep. Lawrence McClure

Rep. Lawrence McClure

HB 7 by Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Republican and business owner from Plant City, is scheduled for debate by the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee on January 13. An identical measure, SB 72 by Brandes, has yet to receive a committee reference.

Both measures would set a one-year statute of limitations for COVID-19-related claims for damages, injuries, or deaths. They would require plaintiffs to obtain an affidavit from a Florida physician stating that the defendant’s acts or omissions were to blame.

The measures would also raise the burden of proof from simple negligence to gross negligence and evidentiary standards from “the greater weight of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”

The House speaker and Senate president consider the legislation a priority for the 60-day session that convenes March 2. Lawmakers are also expected to file legislation to protect nursing homes and the health-care industry.

The Florida Justice Association says that most pandemic-related lawsuits center on disputes between business owners and their insurance carriers, and that there is no need to further restrict access to the courts.

Plaintiffs already face a nearly impossible burden of proving where they contracted the disease, FJA executive director Paul Jess said last month.

“This is really a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “We’ve been in this pandemic for months and months now, we don’t see an avalanche of lawsuits, and we don’t expect one.”

The COVID-19 Complaint Tracker, a national database maintained by Hunton Andrews Kurth, recently identified 483 lawsuits in Florida.

Last month, Sen. Danny Burgess, an attorney and a Republican from Zephyrhills, told the Bar News that the legislation would not protect defendants who are guilty of the most “egregious” behavior.

“We have to have a balanced approach, certain actors should still be held liable, but those are exceptions,” he said. “We just can’t have a wild west turkey shoot going on, that’s not what we need right now.”

Burgess chairs the Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response and expects the legislation to flow through his committee.

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