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Group offers proposal for liability protections

Essential businesses would be exempt from COVID-19 litigation.

Forty lobbyists and association representatives met over the summer to discuss ways to protect businesses from what some fear will be a flood of lawsuits related to COVID-19.

Co-chaired by Marc Salm, vice president of risk management at Publix Super Markets, and William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, the group, dubbed the RESET Task Force, finalized a proposal that would exempt “essential businesses” from any COVID-19 related litigation and would change litigation rules for “non-essential businesses” that could be sued.

The task force is not proposing that the changes be applied retroactively to cover businesses. Essentially, the group is proposing that scores of businesses identified as “essential” in executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis be given immunity from COVID-19 related suits.

Those employers include hospitals, doctors’ officers, dentists’ offices, urgent care centers, clinics, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, child care facilities,  grocery stores, farmers’ markets, farm and produce stands, food banks, convenience stores, gas stations, auto-supply stores and banks.

For businesses that could still face lawsuits, the task force is recommending that the Legislature raise the bar for culpability in COVID-19 claims from simple negligence to gross negligence.

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The task force also wants lawmakers to change  evidentiary standards for COVID-19 claims by upping it from a current “greater weight of the evidence” standard to  “clear and convincing evidence.”

Another recommendation is that the Legislature put into law for businesses a rebuttable presumption that people who interacted with the businesses were not infected with COVID-19. But the recommendation would allow that presumption to be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that the businesses had knowledge otherwise.

Breaking his silence on liability limitations amid the pandemic, DeSantis said Tuesday the Legislature could consider a bill to give liability protections to “run-of-the-mill businesses” during a Special Session that also could involve his controversial plan to crack down on disorderly protesters.

DeSantis unveiled the plan about protesters Monday and suggested Tuesday that a Special Session could be held when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for a Nov. 17 post-election organization Session.

“There is a lot of concern about liability,” DeSantis said. “I believe it holds the economy back.”

Members of the RESET Task Force include representatives of groups and companies such as the Florida Home Builders Association, the Florida Council of 100, Travelers Insurance, the Florida Trucking Association, the Florida Health Care Association,  the Florida Bankers Association, the Florida Retail Federation, Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Realtors and Walgreens.

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