A bill that would establish COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and healthcare providers is on its way to the Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ desk.
The House on Friday voted to approve the bill (SB 72) with an 83-31 vote after a brief debate among lawmakers. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes is the bill sponsor.
Despite being a Republican priority, seven Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of the proposal: Kristen Arrington of Kissimmee, Kamia Brown of Ocoee, Kevin Chambliss of Homestead, Andrew Learned of Brandon, David Silvers of Lake Clarke Shores, Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton and Matt Willhite of Wellington.
Under the bill, protections would become applicable if a defendant made a “good-faith effort” to substantially comply with government health guidelines.
Moreover, a plaintiff would need to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant acted with “gross negligence” when filing a COVID-19-related lawsuit.
Proponents of the measure contend businesses and providers navigated the pandemic’s early stages with conflicting health guidance and limited supplies.
They fear predatory lawsuits are a looming threat.
“The future of Florida depends on the ability of businesses and healthcare providers to stay in business,” said Republican Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce said the bill will also help to reassure weary business owners.
“Today’s passage of Florida Chamber backed COVID-19 liability protections brings the certainty that businesses and health care facilities have needed for the last year, that after doing their best to keep employees, customers and patients safe, they won’t be facing frivolous lawsuits from opening their doors,” the Chamber said after passage.
Critics, meanwhile, argue the legislation goes too far for corporations, while offering too little to frontline workers.
“We have not picked up any type of legislation to improve or fix the unemployment system, which, as I sit here and listen to debate, my phone and my emails continue to be flooded by people facing the broken unemployment system,” said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando.
Critics also take issue with a provision that would require plaintiffs to submit a physician’s affidavit, attesting that the defendant’s action or inaction led to damages, injury, or death.
Physicians, they argue, cannot make that determination within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.
Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Windemere described the bill as “very dangerous.” She fears the bill will block access to the courts.
“Let’s not change years of tradition in this country,” Thompson said. “Let’s not block access to the courts because it is access to the courts that continue to bring us closer to a more perfect union.”
The massive bill comes after Brandes merged two COVID-19 liability bills into one at the final committee stop.
Originally, the proposals to shield health care providers and businesses were filed as separate measures.
The move to merge, Brandes said, was strategic.
“It’s easier to defend one fortress than to guard two,” Brandes told members of the Senate Rules Committee.
Throughout the committee process, outnumbered Democrats have filed dozens of amendments without success.
Some tried to remove the physician provision while others hoped to extend benefits to first responders.
If signed into law, the bill would take effect immediately and apply retroactively.
Earlier this month, the House passed a bill (HB 7) that would provide liability protections solely to Florida businesses facing COVID-19-related lawsuits.
However, Sprowls later agreed to the new Senate language during negotiations.