The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

House Civil Justice Subcommittee moves tort measure

Senior Editor Top Stories

Rep. Gregory said the bill was primarily drafted to correct 'excessive litigation,' 'asymmetrical fees,' and 'inflated damages'


Rep. Tommy Gregory

The sponsor of a sweeping civil litigation reform measure told a House subcommittee Friday that he merely wants to return “equilibrium” to the system.

House Judiciary Chair Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, said his bill is necessary to combat rising insurance rates and to repair Florida’s reputation as a “judicial hellhole.”

Enterprising trial lawyers are using the justice system like a “broken ATM,” Gregory said.

“You don’t have to wonder if your constituents’ insurance prices are rising too high, because yours are,” he said. “Economic activity responds to incentives — the litigation environment is no different.”

Critics blasted the measure, saying it would erode access to justice and leave small businesses owners, accident victims, and “everyday citizens” at the mercy of insurance company whims.

After nearly five hours of emotional debate, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 12-6 to approve HB 837, with mostly Democrats opposed.

Immediately after the vote, Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson issued a statement praising the legislation.

“Florida’s lawsuit abuse spending tops every other state in the nation and accounts for 3.6% of Florida’s $1.4 trillion economy, with no other state surpassing 3% of their state GDP,” Wilson said. “This means over $50 billion is spent on litigation in Florida every year – more than we spend on infrastructure or even education.”

The bill faces one more committee stop, Judiciary, before reaching the House floor.

With Gov. Ron DeSantis and House and Senate leaders backing reforms — and a Republican supermajority in both chambers — passage seems all but assured.

Gregory said the bill was primarily drafted to correct “excessive litigation,” “asymmetrical fees,” and “inflated damages.”

Among other things, it would eliminate one-way attorney fee provisions for all insurance disputes, make it easier for insurers to avoid liability for “bad faith” claims, and shift Florida from a “pure” to a “modified” comparative negligence standard.

Another provision would prohibit courts from awarding fee multipliers except in rare and unusual circumstances.

A “damages transparency” provision would overturn a 2017 Supreme Court decision, Worley v. Central Florida YMCA, and negate attorney-client privilege “when a communication is relevant to the lawyer’s act of referring the client for treatment by a health care provider.”

Supporters say the measure is necessary to rein in “billboard attorneys” and “lawsuit abuse.”

Veteran State Farm lobbyist Mark Delegal said Florida generates 99% of all auto glass claims in the nation because unscrupulous lawyers have taken advantage of the one-way attorney fee provision.

“We are here on behalf of our policy holders today who are paying higher premiums because of all the people who have testified,” he said. “This is a tax by the rich plaintiffs’ bar against the hard-working folks of Florida.”

But Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association, argued the measure would rob citizens of their access to justice.

“The reason we revolted from King George III is because he took away our right to a jury trial,” Pajcic said. “Stand against these…big insurance companies and keep Florida Free.”

Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami and an attorney, said Florida adopted the one-way fee provision in 1893 to ensure policy holders could afford an attorney when they need to enforce their claims.

“This modification is not indicative of serving the people of Florida,” she said.

Rep. Hillary Cassel

Rep. Hillary Cassel

Rep. Hillary Cassel, D-Hollywood, another attorney lawmaker, said, “you don’t get a $50 million judgment if the insurance company did the right thing.”

“This bill does a lot of harm,” she said. “And the only good it does it puts a lot more money in the pocket of insurance companies.”
Saying she was proud of her profession, Cassel urged the panel to consider the difference between a “frivolous lawsuit” and a “meritless claim.”

“Frivolous is subjective, you might think something is frivolous, but I guarantee you, it’s not to the person that’s injured,” she said. “The courts are set up to do away with meritless litigation, because there’s a difference.”

Several witnesses, some with prosthetic limbs, lined up to testify about catastrophic accidents that maimed them, or claimed the life of a spouse or a child.

A combat veteran tearfully described how his wife died after the car he was driving struck an abandoned truck. The trucker was to blame, the man said, but he was denied damages after the jury found him partially at fault.

“I lost everything because North Carolina had a negligence law very similar to the one you have before you,” he said. “Please do not victimize victims.”

Veteran Miami attorney Jack Hickey told the panel that he spent the first half of his career defending insurance companies.

Moving Florida away from a pure comparative negligence standard will send the wrong message about “personal responsibility,” Hickey warned.

“How could it be anything but fair to have comparative negligence,” he said. “This bill says that if you’re 49% at fault, you can still get off scot-free, that’s not right.”

Rep. Daryl Campbell, D-Ft. Lauderdale, said taxpayers would end up paying for the lifelong medical care of severely injured accident victims.

“This is a backward way to embrace Medicare and Medicaid expansion,” he said.

Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Stuart, said lawsuits that never should be filed are clogging the courts.

Overdorf said his research shows that just five attorneys were responsible for 106,000 “tort claims” in 2022.

“Today, Florida charts a new path away from this judicial hellhole,” he said.

But not all Republicans supported the measure.

Rep. Mike Beltran of Valrico, a Harvard trained lawyer, reminded the panel that he sponsored property insurance reforms that limited attorney fees.

This measure goes too far, Beltran said.

The bill doesn’t address the “dec” or declaratory judgment actions that c0mpanies file to avoid paying a life insurance claim, Beltran said.

“Who’s going to represent my wife after I die and there’s a dec action?” he asked. “It’s bad policy.”

News in Photos