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Legislation would grant colleges some COVID liability immunity

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Sen. Joe Gruters

Sen. Joe Gruters

A Senate panel has approved a measure that would grant universities immunity from civil liability related to their decision to close campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate Education Committee voted overwhelmingly on March 30 to approve SPB 7070, a committee bill.

“I understand people’s frustrations,” said Committee Chair Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is managing the legislation.

“Although you may not be in person, an online education is still worthwhile.”

The measure would protect Florida colleges from a handful of lawsuits that have been filed seeking reimbursement for tuition or fees after the pandemic forced campuses to close and switch to online instruction.

Retroactive to a March 1, 2020, emergency declaration, the measure cites an “overpowering public necessity for, and no reasonable alternative to, providing educational institutions with liability protections against lawsuits seeking tuition or fee reimbursements or related damages….”

The measure would also ease K-12 accountability measures related to standardized testing, and among other things, allow parents of K-5 students to request that their children be retained at their current grade level.

Sen. Perry E. Thurston, Jr.

Sen. Perry E. Thurston, Jr.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale and an attorney, attempted to strip a portion of the bill that immunizes universities from liability for student housing, dining, and activity fees.

“It seems this bill would void their pending litigation, so that they wouldn’t have any refunds,” Thurston said.

The amendment failed on a voice vote.

Thurston later said he could support the bill after Gruters promised that he would narrow the language at the next committee stop.

Jacksonville trial attorney Curry Pajcic, treasurer of the Florida Justice Association, spoke in favor of Thurston’s amendment.

The Legislature shouldn’t block students from going to court to seek refunds for services that they purchased in advance, but never received, Pajcic said. Student housing, dining and activity fees in some cases can amount to $6,000 or more, Pajcic said.

“If a business takes money in advance for a product, and does not deliver the product, then the business can’t just keep the money, they have to pay it back,” Pajcic said.

A spokeswoman for Nova Southeastern University said universities used federal CARES Act funding to reimburse students for fees. But universities shouldn’t be held liable for complying with federal and state health mandates, she said.

“The irony is, if we had required students to go to campus to finish the semester, we would have faced lawsuits,” she said.

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