A Senate committee cleared legislation Wednesday that would create COVID-19 liability protections for Florida health care providers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced SB 74 with a 6-4 vote. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Pete Republican, is the bill sponsor.
The bill advances without four amendments proposed by Democrats.
Brandes’ proposal would raise the bar for COVID-19 related lawsuits against health care providers.
Under the measure, plaintiffs would need to prove a provider acted with gross negligence or intentional misconduct instead of simple negligence.
The bill would also up evidentiary standards from “greater weight of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”
Further, the proposal affords protections to providers who “substantially” followed government-issued health standards and guidance.
“We are asking in this piece of legislation that we protect our health care industry that has gone over and above the call of duty in order to protect and serve every resident in the state who needed help,” Brandes said.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has deemed COVID-19 liability protections a priority. Proposals to extend legal protections to schools, churches and businesses are moving separately through the Legislature.
Proponents of Brandes’ proposal contend predatory lawsuits are a looming threat against Florida’s health care community.
They note that health care workers navigated the pandemic’s early stages with conflicting health guidance and limited supplies.
The bill includes protections from claims if “supplies, materials, equipment, or personnel necessary to comply with the applicable government-issued health standards or guidance at issue were not readily available or were not available at a reasonable cost.”
“We have to understand that in many ways, we asked our health care workers to MacGyver their way through the pandemic,” Brandes told lawmakers.
Proponents also argue the protections offer reassurance to business owners navigating Florida’s COVID-19 ravaged economy.
“If employers’ confidence in the economy is shaken due to the absence of a liability shield, we would reduce the Florida economy by as much as $27.6 billion and more than 356,000 jobs annually,” a Florida Tax Watch report prognosticates.
While it is unclear how many COVID-19 related lawsuits exist, a Florida Chamber poll suggests Floridians support COVID-19 liability protections.
According to the poll, 74% of likely voters said they support business protections, and 78% favor protections for doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Meanwhile, protection opponents, including AARP, fear the legislation may legally disarm Floridians.
“My big issue is access to courts,” Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky told reporters. “I’ve said that in the other bill and in this bill. I’m just uncomfortable with making it so much harder.”
Others fear the legislation may be a step toward blanket immunity.
When asked by Polsky to give an example of gross negligence, Brandes described an employer who knowingly allows an infected worker to continue working.
Polsky doubled down on her question, prompting Brandes to parry.
“I’m a Christian, not an attorney,” Brandes said, drawing laughs within the committee room. “I would need to defer to legal minds.”
The Florida Legislature is fast-tracking a separate bill, SB 72, that offers protections to businesses, churches, and schools.
Meanwhile, the House Health & Human Services Committee proposed a committee bill on Friday that also offers COVID-19 liability protections for health care entities. Sen. Colleen Burton chairs the House Health & Human Services Committee.
Brandes’ proposal moves next to the Health Policy Committee and Rules Committee.
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis applauded the proposal in a statement. Since the pandemic’s onset, Patronis has remained a liability protection advocate.
“These front-line heroes have been working long hours and maintaining stringent health safety processes to protect our friends, loved ones, and our most vulnerable population — our seniors,” Patronis said. “They have fought through PPE shortages and put their own lives on the line to protect our communities from this serious virus. I applaud the Florida Senate for taking action today to move this legislation forward and step up for these health care heroes as they stepped up for us.”
The 2021 Legislative Session begins March 2.