The House has passed a bill to protect farming operations from nuisance lawsuits, preparing that legislation for the Governor’s signature.
By a 110-7 vote, with only a handful of Democrats in opposition, members have passed an update (SB 88) to Florida’s Right to Farm Act, a priority of the Senate to moderate lawsuits against farmers. The law is meant to protect farmers from people who move into rural communities and then file complaints against farmers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has until April 29 to act on the bill.
Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican and electrician, said shepherding Sen. Jason Brodeur‘s bill through the House was a learning experience for him because he’s not a farmer.
“I might talk like one and I might walk like one,” he added. “You can look at me and tell I definitely enjoy partaking in the fruits of their labor, but I’m not a farmer.”
However, he urged members to “thank a farmer” by voting yes on the measure.
The bill would restrict certain types of civil lawsuits based on farming activities, require plaintiffs to prove noncompliance with state or federal requirements and limit who may file nuisance lawsuits against farmers. For negligence, trespassing, personal injury and strict liability lawsuits, as well as nuisance suits, plaintiffs must provide clear and convincing evidence the farming activity does not comply with state and federal environmental laws, regulations or best management practices.
Nuisance suits would also be restricted to plaintiffs located within a half-mile of the activity or structure that is targeted in the suit. Plaintiffs that sue over activities deemed legal could be asked to pay the defendant farm’s attorney fees.
The bill includes an expansive definition of nuisance, “reasonable use and enjoyment of land,” that includes noise, smoke, odors, dust, fumes, particle emissions or vibration.
“A nuisance is a nuisance is a nuisance, and so no matter how creative you get with the verb you use, it’s still basically a nuisance claim,” Brodeur told a Senate panel earlier this year.
Some Democrats pushed back on the bill with fears it would prevent those affected by crop burning, specifically sugarcane burning, from suing farmers because the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has OK’d the practice.
The House rejected a series of amendments Wednesday by Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat, that included trying to expand the one-half mile threshold for lawsuits to 25 miles.
“It’s been said that this bill closes the doors of the courthouse. That goes a little bit too far, because it does leave the doors of the courthouse cracked, open just a little bit,” Hardy said Thursday. “So, it’s not just about access to the court. It’s about what that access looks like when you get here. And if you look at the bill, it’s clear that if you can get in the court after this bill passes, the odds are going to be stacked against you.
Also among those who voted against the measure was Rep. Anna V. Eskamani.
“Suing because you have concerns over the air you breathe compared to suing because you smell manure is not the same thing,” she said.
Several members changed their opinions on the bill from no to yes after farmers from the Everglades explained why they need the measure.
The bill also incorporates “agritourism” — such as attractions like corn mazes, rural bed-and-breakfasts and wine tours — as protected farming activities. Unlike the remainder of the bill, that provision received bipartisan support.
Backers of the measure, including multiple Democrats, said farmers face increased pressures from residential and commercial development as Florida attracts more people.
“We’ve been fighting a battle. That battle has been not against other industries as much as it’s been against development,” Homestead Democratic Rep. Kevin Chambliss said. “And we’ve been losing that battle. The urban development boundary has consistently encroached upon agriculture, creating more residential communities than it does bring in jobs.”
Wellington Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite noted that residents from the sugar-growing Glades region were in Tallahassee last week advocating for the bill.
“If we drive some of these industries out of our backyard, they have no place to go,” Willhite said. “We’re going to lose millions of jobs. We’re going to lose billions of dollars in revenue for the state. I think this bill moves in the right direction for protecting them, supporting them and doing the right thing for all of us.”
Rep. Melony Bell, a Fort Meade Republican, said it’s not just farms around the Everglades that face development pressures. She said her husband is a beekeeper, an industry that regularly faces lawsuits over people being stung.
“Do you want us to be bringing all of our food in from out of the United States that we don’t know what pesticides were used” in growing the food? Bell asked.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, a lifelong egg farmer, has vocally supported the effort, which passed his chamber 37-1. House Speaker Chris Sprowls called the bill “a labor of love” for the Senate President.
“At the start of this Legislative Session. I presented Senate President Simpson with a ‘Farmer’s Almanac’ from 1845, the year that Florida was founded,” Sprowls said. “It wasn’t just a hat tip for his commitment to his vocation. It was a hat tip for his love and his passion for this land … for the history of our state that is rich and built on people who were sweating in the fields and making sure that our families were fed, and also to his commitment to the future of Florida, to make sure that that industry, that agriculture, continues to be part of our identity.
“I’ve often said, Dr. (Ralph) Massullo, that occasionally you need a doctor, I’ve said on occasion Representative (Erin) Grall, sometimes you need a lawyer, but you do need a farmer three times a day,” Sprowls said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.