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House moves bill to protect colleges from COVID suits

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Rep. Jackie Toledo

Rep. Jackie Toledo

The House has approved a measure that would protect colleges from lawsuits related to their decision to close campuses and switch to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House voted 92-22 on April 21 to approve CS/HB 1261 by the Education and Employment Committee. The bill is being managed by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

In addition to the liability protections, the measure includes tuition waivers for students enrolled in “a program of strategic emphasis,” including math, science, engineering, education, and health care.

Some students have complained that the liability shield prevents them from recovering money they were required to pay for meal plans, athletic activities, parking, and other services. In brief remarks on the floor, Toledo focused on the tuition waivers for preferred disciplines.

“It will not negatively impact students,” Toledo said. “This bill will empower students and families.”

The day before, the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-7 to approve SB 7070 by the Education Committee, a companion measure that is not identical to the House version. The bill is being managed by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.

Several students testified that their university was refusing to reimburse them for thousands of dollars in student activity, athletic, parking, and other fees for services that were never delivered.

Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney, said the bill “tilts the scales of justice in an unfair way.”

“Students paid for stuff that they didn’t get,” Farmer said. “Students deserve money back, and the schools are saying no.”

Tallahassee attorney William Cotterall, speaking on behalf of the trial attorney group Florida Justice Association, reminded the committee that the bill violates the sanctity of contracts.

“This one does not deal with personal injury matters…this bill is actually addressing whether or not a college or educational institution should uphold a contract they entered into,” he said.

But Gruters insisted that he had amended the liability shield to exempt fees. Universities should not be liable for reimbursing tuition when they provided online instruction, Gruters said.

“They did have school, they did have classes,” Gruters said. “Food services, parking fees, housing, all these are not part of this bill. It’s specifically for tuition,” he said.

SB 7070 heads next to the Senate floor.

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