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COVID-19 civil liability protection bill clears first hurdle

House Speaker Chris Sprowls has vowed to fast track the legislation.

The House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee advanced legislation Wednesday that creates COVID-19 liability protections for select Florida businesses.

The bill, HB 7, cleared its first committee stop with an 11-6 vote. Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure is the bill sponsor.

By design, HB 7 shields Florida businesses, nonprofits, schools and religious institutions from frivolous COVID-19 related lawsuits.

The bill’s retroactive protections apply to organizations who make “good faith effort” to follow federal, state and local health guidelines.

Advocates contend the measure is a necessary component to Florida’s economic recovery.

“My concern is we can lose an entire generation of entrepreneurs if we don’t provide some certainty,” warned Sarasota Rep. James Buchannan.

The bill advanced without five amendments proposed by Democratic Ranking Member Ben Diamond and Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson. While three amendments failed and two were withdrawn, the bill underwent considerable debate.

Diamond’s amendments, among other pursuits, challenged a provision requiring a Florida physician to attest that a defendant contracted COVID-19 from the defendant’s premise.

Another amendment aimed to add employee protections into the measure. The bill — under protest by some lawmakers — remains without employee protections.

“I’m not here to say that this is more important than employee protections or other issues,” McClure said, later contending, “I want to make sure that our businesses are very comfortable reopening and operating.”

Other concerns focused on a provision mandating plaintiffs to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s actions were “at least grossly negligent.”

“I think that that idea, candidly, jeopardizes the bill and I think it should come out of the bill,” Diamond suggested.

CFO Jimmy Patronis, a lead advocate for the protections, appeared before the subcommittee to speak in favor of the measure.

“Those who are working to do right by their customers and are following government guidelines should be able to operate without fear of frivolous litigation,” Patronis said. “Without actions by the Legislature, we could see more litigation raise insurance rates and hamper Florida’s recovery.”

Since Florida’s reopening, Patronis has contended that protections are needed to help Florida’s economy recover. To drive the plea home, he’s hosted “Rally at the Restaurant” tours with event stops in cities statewide. He is often accompanied by supportive GOP lawmakers and local business leaders.

Florida Justice Reform Institute (FJRI) President William Large also spoke in favor of the legislation before the subcommittee and offered some numbers.

Citing a summer study by the institute,  Large said the FJRI identified at least 53 COVID- 19 related lawsuits, though he suspects the number is  “way higher.”

The bill’s sponsor, alternatively, said he’s noted fewer than 10 lawsuits.

“Florida hasn’t faced a pandemic in over 100 years,” Large said. “Our liability laws were not built to handle something so novel and unexpected. We must modernize these laws now to avoid an explosion of costly lawsuits that threaten to keep our economy from getting back on track.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls vowed last week to prioritize HB 7. He described the bill’s advance Wednesday as a “win for small business owners.”

Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson, meanwhile, echoed the Speaker’s sentiment in a statement.

“Today’s hearing was a step in the right direction as we aim to protect from frivolous COVID lawsuits Florida’s businesses that are doing their part to keep employees and customers safe and relaunch our economy,” Wilson said. “The business community greatly appreciates Rep. McClure’s leadership on this issue, the confidence moving this measure quickly sends to both employers and employees, and the certainty it will provide for many job creators. “

The bill will next undergo a House Health and Human Services Committee workshop on Thursday.

Written By

Jason Delgado covers news out of the state capital for Florida Politics. After a stint with the U.S. Army, Jason attended the University of Central Florida where he studied American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. Throw him a line at jason@floridapolitics.com or on Twitter at @JasonDelgadoFL.

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