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Fast tracking to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits? FL Legislature hasn’t convened yet and vote in full House is near

By Michael Moline -February 16, 2021

FL State Capitol The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo Colin Hackley

The House version of legislation to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits is preparing for its final committee vote Tuesday afternoon before heading to the full House.

That’s fast — the Florida Legislature doesn’t even convene until March 2.

It’s a testament to GOP leaders who want this legislation to happen for a swath of businesses.

Meanwhile, Democrats, as well as trial lawyers and labor and consumer groups are against the provisions to help shield businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.

That’s all presuming the bill (HB 7) secures the support of the Republicans who also control the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Miami-Dade Republican Daniel Perez.

In previous votes over the past six weeks by the committees on Civil Justice and Pandemics and Public Emergencies, the measure passed on party-line votes.

“They’re going to take it up on short order” on the House floor, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a lobby that favors the legislation, told the Phoenix — although he didn’t know the exact timing.

Similar legislation pending in the Senate (SB 72) has already passed the Judiciary Committee (chaired by Pinellas Republican Jeff Brandes, the bill’s author) and is awaiting a hearing before the Commerce and Tourism Committee.

Separate bills pending in both chambers would erect litigation shields for medical providers, including hospitals, nursing homes, doctors, and nurses.

Business interests favor both bills, which they see as necessary to prevent a potential onslaught of litigation against businesses, big and small, still struggling with the COVID recession.

Trial lawyers, labor, and groups representing consumers argue there has been no onslaught and that the measures would issue a blank check for bad actors among the business community.

The general business legislation in both chambers would also apply to actions against individuals, charitable organizations, nonprofits, public or private educational institutions, government entities, and religious institutions.

Before any lawsuit could commence, a plaintiff would have to secure a doctor’s affidavit linking a COVID infection to a particular workplace. Defendants would be exempt from lawsuits if they made good-faith efforts to follow the best available medical and government guidelines for COVID control. Additionally, plaintiffs would have to establish gross negligence.