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Major changes to Florida tort laws proposed in the House

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Re. Tommy Gregory

House leaders have filed a major “tort reform” proposal a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to end “a cottage industry of litigation.”

House Judiciary Chair Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, filed HB 837 on February 15. The measure has just two stops, the Civil Justice Subcommittee and Judiciary, before reaching the House floor.

“You have a lot of use of the legal system that’s been put toward not benefiting someone in the system,” DeSantis said at a Jacksonville press conference the day before.

The press conference sparked a blizzard of statements from Florida’s leading business groups.

“Florida’s bottom-five legal climate is hurting local businesses,” said Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson.

“Florida’s current tort climate is one of the top challenges facing businesses in every industry and every corner of our state,” said Associated Industries of Florida CEO and President Brewster Bevis.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner joined DeSantis at the media availability to lend their support. All three are attorneys.

Passidomo, R-Naples, said the reforms would build on property insurance legislation the Legislature approved in a December special session.

“We’re just going to take what we did in December and we’re going to apply it to all insurance issues, all litigation in Florida,” she said.

DeSantis issued a press release that called for “eliminating one-way attorney fees and fee multipliers for all line of insurance, modernizing Florida’s ‘bad faith’ law, and protecting small business from paying exorbitant damages.”

Personal Insurance Federation of Florida CEO Michael Carlson issued a statement shortly after the bill was filed and called it “monumental.”

“This tort reform package is the most consequential in decades,” he said. “This shows a bold and unified effort between our state’s branches of government to create a fairer system that will protect consumers and drive out abusive litigation filed by attorneys only for profit.”

But Jacksonville attorney Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association, called the proposal “an insurance company giveaway.”

“The governor wants to make this a good business environment for everybody, and we agree with that,” Pajcic said. “But this has gone way too far. It is terrifying the rights they are trying to take away.”

Severely injured plaintiffs could find their medical expenses capped at 140% of the Medicaid rate, Pajcic said.

“We are not going to let a jury decide the value of your medical bills, we, the government, will tell you the value of your medical bills,” Curry said.

The bill would add a subsection (6) “Greater Percentage of Fault” to F.S. §768.81 that would state, “In a negligence action to which this section applies, any party found to be greater than 50% at fault for his or her own harm may not recover any damages.”

The provision would allow a driver who causes a serious accident to avoid paying damages,  Pajcic said.

“This law they’re proposing would excuse from liability someone who might be 49% at fault,” Curry said. “The responsible person, who should have been held accountable, gets to walk away.”

Another provision would repeal a section of Florida law that has long provided an incentive for insurance companies to treat their policy holders fairly, Pajcic said. The provision requires insurers to pay a policy holder’s attorney fees and costs if a court determines the company unfairly denied or underpaid a claim.

“There are multiple problems with this bill, but the main thing everybody should know is that it is stripping the right of Floridians to hold others accountable and responsible for the full measure of the damages they cause,” he said. “It exposes us all to abuse by the insurance industry.”

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