Florida businesses, churches and schools are one step closer to receiving fortified protections against COVID-19 related lawsuits.
On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced SB 72 by a 7-4 party-line vote. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, is the bill sponsor.
SB 72 seeks to shield churches, schools, and businesses from frivolous COVID-19-related lawsuits by making them more challenging for plaintiffs. It does not extend protections to health care providers.
Under SB 72, plaintiffs would need to prove gross negligence rather than simple negligence in a lawsuit.
Also, COVID-19-related lawsuits would require an affidavit from a Florida physician, attesting that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries or damages.
Brandes described the legislation as “safe harbor.”
“Florida has devolved into a sue and settle culture and many people just want to try to file lawsuits so they can get you to quickly settle the case. Without any hurdles, that would bankrupt dozens of small businesses, local churches, and frankly, some individual homeowners.”
SB 72 advanced without four proposed amendments seeking to extend protections to health care workers and first responders.
Meanwhile, an identical House Bill is in the hands of the newly minted Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee. The bill, HB 7, cleared a House subcommittee last week.
Legislative leadership has identified COVID-19 liability protections as a priority ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session.
Protection proponents assert that a spike in litigation will cripple already-struggling businesses with legal fees. What’s more, they warn that predatory litigation may shape business decisions and ultimately delay Florida’s economic rebound.
Speaking to the committee, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said business owners have enough concerns while operating in good faith. Patronis, in recent months, has traveled to restaurants statewide to discuss the protections.
Those who operate in good faith, he contends, deserve peace-of-mind.
“The looming issue that’s still there after they do all these hoops that we asked him to jump through is the unknown liabilities that they may face because of what COVID can do to the business,” Patronis said. “People are already working on small margins as it is.”
On the other hand, critics lament the bill contains no protections for employees. They also fear the bill would make legal challenges more difficult than necessary.
There is also considerable debate surrounding how many COVID-19-related lawsuits exist in Florida, a weaponized detail that calls into question the proposal’s need.
“If a business is afraid to open, I believe it is because of a lack of customers, not fear of losses,” Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky said. “I’ve never heard from a single business owner in my community. And I don’t think that we should be legislating on a fear that is unfounded.”
Elsewhere, at least 14 states have passed legislation to provide civil liability immunity to individuals and entities from COVID-19-related claims, according to a bill review.
Additionally, at least two other states have issued executive orders to provide liability limitations.
To date, no similar federal legislation has been enacted.
SB 72 would take effect upon becoming a law and apply retroactively.