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Insurance reforms, case backlogs, and COVID protections highlight Judiciary committees’ agendas

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Sen. Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes

Insurance matters — both COVID-19-liability protection and cracking down on insurance fraud — are on the agendas for the Florida House and Senate Judiciary committees for the 2021 session.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his committee will look at a wide range of insurance reforms, including some based on a pending Florida Bar grievance case. He also said incorporating strategies adopted by courts to help handle cases during the pandemic and continued criminal justice reforms will be on the committee’s agenda.

Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the committee will be looking at legislation related to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s call for tougher laws on disruptive protesters as well as COVID liability protection.

Rep. Daniel Perez

Rep. Daniel Perez

“Our top priority is going to be the COVID liability aspect of things and making sure we protect the small businesses,” Perez said. “There will be some sort of COVID immunity for those who are responsible in operating their businesses.”

That will include “hospitals and nursing homes, as well as small businesses,” he said.

A bill with the details should be released by the end of January, Perez said.

The next issue “would be some version of a protection of our communities against frivolous rioting,” he said. “The details of that are something we are working on.”

Gov. DeSantis in September proposed new legislation — and said it would be a top priority of the Legislature in 2021 — aimed at preventing rioting and disorderly assemblies. He called for felony charges for persons in an assembly of seven or more that causes property damage or injuries or when those in unpermitted protests obstruct traffic.

“We’ve received suggestions from the Governor’s Office and we’re still combing through that,” Perez said. “We’re obviously much closer on that than we were three months ago, but we don’t have specific details.”

Helping the justice system and the state as a whole recover from the pandemic will be a priority, he said, but with the realization that the pandemic has constricted state revenues.

“We’re looking at everything that has been brought to us to find a solution for these COVID problems,” Perez said. “We’re very tight on money because of COVID. We’re continuing to look at revenues.”

He said he and other lawmakers have a “friendly” relationship with the courts and he expects that to continue.

“I’ve gotten along well with the courts, the clerks, and the Supreme Court,” Perez said. “Our job is to make it easier for our constituents and the courts.”

Brandes said he expects that strategies used to keep the courts running through the pandemic will be adapted to improve future court operations.

“You’re going to see the committee focus on the long-term success of the courts and looking at the availability of technology to enhance the courts,” he said. “In civil, we have saved an incredible amount of time and effort of the courts and both the plaintiff and defense attorneys in streamlining that.”

Aside from that, “you’re going to see some significant work in reimagining the world of Florida insurance,” Brandes said.

Some of that will be based on a Bar grievance case pending at the Supreme Court, Case No. 20-806. The case involves an attorney whose firm represented clients with claims against insurance companies; the attorney received an emergency suspension earlier this year.

The referee in the case advocated dismissing some Bar charges but also recommended the attorney be found guilty of bringing cases without merit, engaging in unwarranted delays, lacking candor and presenting misleading or erroneous information to the court, knowingly representing a client engaged in fraudulent conduct, obstructing opposing parties’ access to evidence, failing to communicate settlement offers and related information to the client, not fully communicating with clients, and failing to supervise other attorneys and staff, among other charges.

The referee recommended a two-year suspension, while the Bar is asking for disbarment. The case is still pending at the Supreme Court.

“We’re going to look into that to determine if there’s anything that needs to be done in law to provide more clarity and guardrails,” Brandes said. “I think it will be insurance reform on what they can offer in their policies, I think it will be reform as it relates to the time individuals have to file a claim, and reform as to the alternative dispute resolution process” as well as other issues. That could include more funding for state attorneys to pursue insurance fraud prosecutions.

He said a report is due on the insurance issues in mid-January from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability and “my briefings to date have not been positive on how Florida is fighting [insurance] fraud and the time it takes to do the investigative process.”

Brandes said he plans to continue his long-standing campaign on criminal justice reform. One upside from the pandemic, he said, is the number of state prison inmates has been reduced from around 94,000 to 84,000 — but that may be temporary.

When criminal trials and cases resume a regular schedule “at some junction that dam is going to break and many of those individuals will find themselves incarcerated in a system unprepared to deal with the additional 10,000 inmates,” Brandes said. “We need to ensure we’re meeting our constitutional obligation to provide a Department of Corrections that’s safe and efficient for the inmates and staff.”

While the state will have a tight budget, he said it will be difficult to ignore requests from the court system to deal with pandemic backlogs. The court system is asking for $16 million this year, and $37 million over three years, to deal with backlogs, including in trials. The Trial Court Budget Commission has estimated there will be around 5,000 delayed trials by June 30.

“There really isn’t much of a choice for the Legislature to fund that. It needs to deal with that backlog. It gets more expensive the longer you draw it out,” Brandes said. “If it’s $15 or $20 million today, if you wait a year it will be $40 million.”

The Legislature will begin having committee meetings for the 2021 session in mid-January. The session begins on March 2 and is scheduled to end on April 30.

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