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COVID-19 liability protection measures moving quickly

Senior Editor Top Stories

CoronavirusHouse and Senate committees marked the first day of the 2021 session by moving COVID-19 liability protections a step closer to passage.

Gov. Ron DeSantis referred to the effort in his annual State of the State address during opening day ceremonies.

“I would be remiss if I did not lend my support to the COVID liability bills for business and health care,” DeSantis said.

In his opening remarks, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, cited a need to protect struggling businesses and front-line health-care workers from “frivolous lawsuits.”

Simpson said he wanted to see the legislation reach the governor’s desk early in the session.

“Our bills strike the right balance by shielding those that did their best under difficult circumstances, while also protecting consumers,” Simpson said.

But critics, including Democrats, trial lawyers, labor unions, and consumer advocates vehemently disagreed.

At a Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting shortly after noon, Florida AFL-CIO legislative director Rich Templin said a measure to protect businesses would deny workers access to justice.

SB 72 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would, among other things, allow a judge to dismiss claims if defendants can demonstrate that they made a “reasonable effort” to comply with health guidelines.

“The governor talked a lot today about how successful our reopening was,” Templin said. “If that’s the case, why does the business community need blanket immunity from COVID?”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami and an attorney, attempted to strip a pre-suit process from the bill that would require plaintiffs to submit a physician’s affidavit attesting that the defendant caused the COVID-19 infection.

Pizzo’s amendment would replace it with a standard summary judgment procedure. The amendment failed on a voice vote.

Pizzo warned that the bill would prevent the relatives of Florida inmates who have died of COVID-19 from holding the state responsible.

“Every single one of the 208 inmates who died in our prisons have a slam-dunk case because there was no question where they received injury or death,” he said. “The way this is written, it is so prohibitive, that nobody can get through this process.”

Republicans defeated a series of Democratic amendments before it passed with a 7-4 vote. It faces one more hearing in Senate Rules before reaching the floor. A House companion, HB 7 by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, is awaiting that chamber’s approval.

Later the same day, HB 7005, a measure that would provide COVID-19 liability protections for doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, passed the Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee 12-6.

The sponsor, Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said the measure is necessary to protect “our front-line heroes.”

Burton said the bill would still hold providers responsible for the most egregious behavior.

“There’s a balancing act, because patients and residents deserve protection from bad actors,” she said.

Burton noted that the bill would sunset after a year, giving lawmakers a chance to assess whether it was working.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, R-Tampa and an attorney, offered an amendment that would exempt providers who have been cited by regulators “for more than one infection prevention and control deficiency during any of the three years preceding” a declared state of emergency.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re not protecting the bad actors with this COVID liability shield,” Driskell said.

The amendment failed on a voice vote.

Kim Biegasiewicz, chief nursing officer for Avante Group, a long-term care facility, said her staff risked their own safety to protect residents during the pandemic. Many of them prayed with residents for the pandemic to end, Biegasiewicz said.

“The last thing that is needed is added anxiety that our decisions are going to be second guessed by attorneys,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, they’ve given more than their all.”

The Senate Health Policy Committee is scheduled to hear a companion measure, SB 74, by Brandes, on March 3. It has one more committee stop after that.

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