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Drone insurance bill prompts confusion before clearing committee

BY MATT DIXON - 01/19/2016 04:45 PM EST


A drone. AP Photo/John Locher

TALLAHASSEE — A confused Senate committee Tuesday passed legislation dealing with the best way to insure personal drones — an issue that's proved a thorny one for lawmakers as the numbers of such drones spike.

More than 180,000 people have registered drones nationally since the Federal Aviation Administration opened the registration period in late December, and during a meeting of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers and business groups debated the insurance structure that should apply to them.

Under the original version of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla’s bill (SB 642), the insurance doctrine known as "joint and several" liability would apply to drones — a provision that faced quick backlash from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Justice Reform Institute on Tuesday.

The "joint and several" doctrine, used to determine percentages of liability when many people could potentially be liable, was stripped from state statute in 2006. The business community had fought hard to do away with it, because it meant a company with only partial liability in a lawsuit could end up paying most or all of the damages.

On Tuesday, in response to the backlash, Diaz de la Portilla filed an amendment to his bill that would classify drones as a “dangerous instrumentality,” which comes with a different level of liability.

The term, though, left some members of the committee confused.

“Hell, I never head that term before,” said state Sen. Garrett Richter, a Republican from Naples.

He was the committee’s lone "no" vote, but others also expressed confusion. State Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, said his "yes" vote was out of “respect” for the process, and he hoped clarity would be added in the Senate Rules Committee, the bill's final stop.

The "dangerous instrumentality" term has been applied to a range of things — including airplanes, boats, golf carts, forklifts and cars. An owner of a dangerous instrument is liable for damage it causes, even if they weren't in control of it at the time. For a drone, its owner would be liable for damage it causes even if they weren't flying it at the time.

William Large, an attorney with the Florida Justice Reform Institute, argued that standard should not apply, because only the courts — not the Legislature — have historically classified things as dangerous instruments.

“The record is based upon torts that have occurred with specific objections," he told the panel. "Here would be something unusual: The Legislature would create this doctrine."

“So, the concept is do nothing now and wait until a whole bunch of people are seriously injured? Then you can address the issue?” Diaz de la Portilla said in response.

He pointed to a statute that branded vessels like air boats, canoes and boats dangerous instruments, and he argued it’s not a good idea to wait for drone-related injuries, and the lawsuits they lead to, before raising the liability level.

Carolyn Johnson, a lobbyist with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the group preferred the amended bill but had concerns the legislation sent a bad “signal” to the drone industry about moving to Florida.

Tuesday isn't the only time the bill has stirred debate. In November, it passed the Diaz de la Portilla-chaired Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-4 vote. The House version (HB 452), sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, has not yet had a committee stop.