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Tort bill clears its first House committee

Senior Editor Top Stories

A measure that would limit non-economic damages — commonly referred to as pain and suffering — to $1 million in personal injury or wrongful-death cases passed the House Civil Justice Subcommittee March 6.

Rep. Leek“I believe in our judicial system and I believe there is a place for the plaintiffs’ bar,” said bill sponsor Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach. “But I think that we have gotten out of balance.”

HB 17 passed after Leek promised to consider raising the cap amount.

Before the vote, Leek, a lawyer, announced that he was removing an entire section of the bill known as the “Rational Use of Product Act” that was designed to shield major manufactures from product liability lawsuits.

Leek said he was scrubbing that section, drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, to “avoid any confusion” over Florida’s ongoing law suit against major pharmaceutical manufacturers for their alleged role in the state’s deadly opioid epidemic.

“We want to make sure that the attorney general still has the ability to pursue the opioid crisis lawsuit,” Leek said.

Leek said the equivalent of 3.6 percent of Florida’s GDP – or $4,432 for every household in Florida – is spent on personal injury claims, court costs, and compensation every year, figures critics disputed.

Rep. Anika Omphroy, a Broward County Democrat, reminded Leek that Gov. Ron DeSantis had just bragged about Florida’s booming economy in his State of the State Address delivered only the previous day.

“Where is the crisis that led to this legislation?” Omphroy asked.

Palm Beach Gardens attorney Leslie Kroeger, president-elect of the Florida Justice Association, warned committee members that $1 million would be “paltry” compensation for one of her clients, a 7-year-old girl who was severely burned while wearing defective pajamas and faces a lifetime of disfigurement.

Capping jury awards would also put the Legislature on a dangerous path by introducing “a government valuation” on what a life is worth, Kroeger said.

In 1986, lawmakers set a $450,000 cap on non-economic damages in the Tort Reform and Insurance Act. The next year, the Florida Supreme Court declared the limit an unconstitutional infringement on the right to access the courts unless the Legislature provides a reasonable alternative remedy or commensurate benefit or “there is overpowering public necessity for abolishment of the right and no other method of meeting the public necessity exists.”

In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court overturned a 2003 law that imposed a $1 million cap on non-economic damages related to medical malpractice cases involving death. The majority opinion echoed trial bar complaints that lawmakers were manufacturing a medical malpractice insurance crisis.

Leek stressed that the $1 million cap in his bill applies only to non-economic damages, and that victims could still be compensated for such things as lost wages.

The bill also seeks to limit an accident victim’s medical compensation to “the accurate value of the services provided rather than the inflated amount billed by the medical provider,” according to the staff analysis.

Critics countered that there is no need for the provision because billing experts are available as expert witnesses to establish current and future medical costs.

A companion measure, SB 1320 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has yet to receive a hearing.