By Jim Saunders
TALLAHASSEE — Targeting what Gov. Ron DeSantis called a “cottage industry of litigation,” DeSantis and legislative leaders Tuesday said they will pursue potentially far-reaching changes that would help shield businesses from costly lawsuits.
“If somebody is harmed, you go, you should be able to get compensated,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Jacksonville with Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner. “But I think what our system has done is, you’ll have a situation, someone’s really not liable, but you know if you bring a suit, it’s going to be more expensive to defend the suit. So you (the defendant) have an incentive, as kind of a cost of business, to just do a settlement because that will be cheaper than hiring lawyers to prove your innocence. The problem with that is that those costs get added on to everything that we do.”
Detailed bills had not been filed as of Tuesday afternoon, but an outline from DeSantis’ office indicated the proposals will include some changes that business, insurance and health-care groups have long wanted. Lawmakers are expected to take up the issues during the annual legislative session, which will start March 7.
As an example, the outline from DeSantis’ office included eliminating what are known as “one-way attorney fees” across all lines of insurance. One-way attorney fees require insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who successfully file lawsuits.
Lawmakers during a December special session eliminated one-way attorney fees to try to help financially struggling property insurers. But insurance lobbyists also have been calling for eliminating one-way fees in cases involving such things as auto-accident claims. “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,” Passidomo, R-Naples, said during the appearance at Kenworth of Jacksonville, a truck dealer.
Major business groups quickly backed the announcement by DeSantis and the legislative leaders, with Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson saying the state’s “bottom five legal climate is hurting local businesses.”
“Florida’s current tort climate is one of the top challenges facing businesses in every industry and every corner of our state,” Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Brewster Bevis said in a separate statement. Making the changes, however, would likely spur heavy debate. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and many Democratic lawmakers argue that trying to limit lawsuits and legal fees will unfairly affect injured people.
Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association plaintiffs’ attorney group, released a statement Tuesday that said the “rights of every Floridian are under assault by insurance companies and corporate elites who think they can dictate which rights should be preserved and which can be tossed aside.”
“Justice is the only thing preventing the insurance industry from taking over our state, limiting our freedom and irreparably decimating the rights of our neighbors, family and friends,” Pajcic said. “The FJA (Florida Justice Association) opposes any legislation that takes away the rights of Floridians to hold others responsible and accountable when they harm you or your family. We hope Florida lawmakers will look closely at what they are being asked to do with this legislation and choose to protect Floridians’ rights and keep Florida free.”
Debates about limiting lawsuits, an issue known by the shorthand term of tort reform, flare every year. But business groups see an opportunity this year because of backing from DeSantis, Passidomo and Renner, R-Palm Coast. Renner replaced former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who was widely viewed as friendly to plaintiffs’ attorneys.
During the event in Jacksonville, Renner described the changes as bringing “balance” to the legal system. Renner, DeSantis and Passidomo are all attorneys.
“We’re going to bring things back into balance so the ball is going down the middle of the fairway for everybody,” Renner said.
In addition to eliminating one-way attorney fees, the outline from DeSantis’ office indicated the package will include:
— Eliminating attorney fee “multipliers,” which in certain cases can add to the amounts awarded in fees paid to plaintiffs’ lawyers.
— Making changes to “bad faith” laws. Generally, bad-faith lawsuits allege that insurers did not properly settle claims and can be costly if insurance companies lose.
— Addressing damages when defendants are only partially at fault.
— Making changes related to information provided about such things as health-care reimbursement costs in medical-malpractice cases.