A House panel on Tuesday advanced legislation that would shield businesses, churches and schools from COVID-19 related lawsuits.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced HB 7 with a 14-7 vote. Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Hillsborough Republican, is the bill sponsor.
McClure’s proposal is designed to protect Florida businesses, nonprofits, schools and religious institutions from COVID-19 related lawsuits.
Under the bill, liability protections would apply to organizations who make a “good faith effort” to follow government health guidelines.
Moreover, plaintiffs would need to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant acted with “gross negligence.”
Proponents contend that predatory lawsuits are a looming threat to Florida’s business community.
They further suggest the protections can reassure weary business owners operating amid the pandemic.
Speaking to committee members, McClure noted that businesses navigated conflicting health guidance during the pandemic’s early stages.
“We’ve got to take into consideration March, April, May of 2020 and how fluid the regulations and the guidance and the set of standards were at that time,” McClure said. “If you missed the six o’clock news, your local county commission could have passed a new set of guidance.”
Critics, meanwhile, take issue with several provisions within the bill.
Under the proposal, plaintiffs would need a physician’s affidavit to confirm the virus-related injury resulted from the defendant’s conduct.
Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell described the provision as a “technical problem.”
“We’re requiring physicians to attest to non-medical facts,” Driskell said. “At most, what a medical professional can attest to is that you had COVID during a particular time frame. Not that you acquired it at ABC place or business.”
Critics also lament that the bill contains no protections for employees.
“We keep talking about the businesses, but what about the people that work at the businesses,” Democratic Rep. Ramon Alexander asked. “I’m talking about places where people are working minimum wage. They have no rights. They have no voice.”
Notably, lawmakers clashed along party lines over several late-filed Democratic amendments.
Rep. Tommy Gregory voted to temporarily postpone the amendments, drawing repeated criticism from Democratic lawmakers.
Driskell urged for the issue to be addressed by the Rules Committee.
However, House Judiciary Chairman Daniel Perez pushed back, citing January protocol issued by House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
The protocol requires amendments to be filed the day prior by 6 p.m.
Rep. Ben Diamond, meanwhile, noted that the hearing was the proposal’s last committee stop.
“This is a big departure from how we’ve previously done business,” Diamond told Florida Politics after the meeting. “Committee work is the opportunity to mark up the bills.”
McClure’s proposal is one of several COVID-19 liability bills motoring through the Legislature.
A separate bill, SB 74 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, would offer similar liability protections to health care providers.
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. 78%, meanwhile, favor protections for doctors, hospitals and nursing homes.
McClure acknowledged that Florida has few COVID-19 liability cases in the courts.
“I’m not saying the courts are packed,” McClure said. “What I am saying is we have real fear in our businesses.”
McClure’s proposal would take effect upon being signed into law.