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Senate moves tort bill

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A bill to alter standards in Florida vehicle crashworthiness cases and overturn a nearly 10-year-old Florida Supreme Court precedent has cleared a Senate committee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on January 11 approved 5-1 SB 142, which specifically would overrule D’Amario v. Ford Motor Co., 806 So. 2d 424, (Fla. 2001). That ruling addressed damages caused by product defects that enhanced injuries but did not cause the underlying accident.

D’Amario held that in such product liability cases, evidence about other parties’ involvement in the accident, including the plaintiff’s, could be inadmissible and the jury is only allowed to consider evidence about product defects.

Garrett Richter

Richter

The bill “changes Florida law to permit juries in a Florida courtroom to hear all of the facts leading up to a products liability case, thereby allowing that jury to apportion fault,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, sponsor of
SB 142. “It’s an opportunity to put all the facts on the table.”

Doug Lampe of Ford Motor Company said Ford has seen crashworthiness-related cases go up 400 percent in Florida over the past 10 years because of D’Amario, while nationally such cases are down 50 percent. He said attorneys file such cases in an attempt to prevent the jury from hearing the plaintiff’s own culpability in the underlying accident.

“The jury should be allowed to compare the fault of all those who contributed to the accident, and not just the car company,” Lampe said.

He also said the ruling indirectly sanctions drunken driving because any evidence of that by someone involved in an accident is withheld from the jury.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he would vote for the bill, but thought it should be scaled back. He gave a hypothetical of a drunk driver rear-ending another car at 3 mph, and then that car’s gas tank rupturing and catching on fire, causing injuries to the occupants. That the driver was drunk, he said, is immaterial to the underlying defect that the car should have been able to withstand a 3 mph impact without catching on fire.

He argued the judge in such instances needs to be able to give a clarifying instruction that the driver’s intoxication has no role in the burn-related injuries.

Leslie Kroger, an attorney representing the Florida Association for Auto Safety which formed to oppose the bill, argued the law should stay as it is, and D’Amario should remain unchanged.

D’Amario says the manufacturer is responsible for what the manufacturer causes,” she said. “If someone chooses to bring a case together that the initial accident caused a broken arm, but the defendant caused burns, then the jury is instructed not to consider the arm. They are separate. The manufacturer is not responsible for what the driver causes, and the driver is not responsible for what the manufacturer causes.”

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, warned the bill would impact the state budget since victims unable to recover for injuries would be forced into the state’s Medicaid program. She noted when a similar bill was proposed in a past session, it was estimated that if it passed, 20 people a year, at an average annual cost of $500,000 each, would be added to the Medicaid rolls.

“Making the injured person as whole as possible is the goal,” Joyner said.

But Richter said it’s only fair that juries get all the information surrounding an accident. “It’s an insult to juries. . . to say that juries should make decisions with half the story or less than half the story,” he argued. “Lady Justice needs to be blind, but not deaf.”

The committee approved the bill 5-1, with Joyner casting the dissenting vote. The bill will next go to the Commerce and Tourism Committee, and, if it passes there, to the Budget Committee. A similar measure, HB 201, was filed in the House on January 13.

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