Florida Justice Reform Institute, Logo

Sarasota Herald Tribune

Senate passes bill to change how lawsuit damages are divided

By David Royce

Associated Press - March 31, 2006

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.  - Defendants in lawsuits would be insulated from having to pay the damages of codefendants who are broke under a bill Gov. Jeb Bush said he would sign after the Senate easily passed it Thursday.

The Senate vote was 27-13 on the measure, which would eliminate a doctrine in civil law that requires some defendants to pick up the damages assigned to another party who can't afford to pay.  Bush in the past has called the doctrine a "job killer."

The bill (HB 145) was the top priority of the business community, which claims that too often businesses with "deep pockets" get added onto lawsuits. It was also the top priority of House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City.  The House had passed a similar measure earlier. 

"This allows people to pay for the mistakes that they make, but not the mistakes of others," said Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Park, the Senate sponsor of the bill.

Supporters said it was a simple tenet of fairness that a defendant found to be responsible for 30 percent of damages should only have to pay 30 percent, and not have to pay more simply because another defendant can't afford to pay.

"Every defendant in a civil justice suit will (now) pay their fair share," said William Large, head of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which pushed for the change.

But it wouldn't be fair for everyone, opponents said, arguing some victims won't be able to collect what they're due.

What is a victim "can only collect 10 percent of the money you have to pay to the local hospital?" asked Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.  "Where's the fairness there? You, the injured party, you now have to fend for yourself."

Or the cost of injured victims' medical care will be shifted to taxpayers through public hospitals and government programs that care for the indigent, said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Trial Lawyers.  

"Someone is going to pay the medical costs," Carruthers said. "The Legislature said, 'We're going to let the guilty go free and make victims and taxpayers pay.'"

Backers of the change said it was also a question of economics.  Bush was among those, saying he would sign the bill into law "with great joy," in part because the doctrine has been a hindrance to economic development.  

"Repealing the law removes a barrier for businesses considering relocating to Florida," Bush said.

Slade O'Brien, a spokesman for Florida Stop Lawsuit Abuse, a group of mostly small businesses that promote measures to insulate business from lawsuit losses, said the current law leads businesses to charge more for goods and services, because they have to insure themselves against big losses. 

"There's that fear that you're going to end up getting stuck with more than you're responsible for, so often they're encouraged to go ahead and settle," said O'Brien. 

While the measure is often portrayed as a help primarily to big corporations that are often thought of as "deep pockets," smaller businesses have been hurt by the doctrine as well, O'Brien and other supporters said.

Bill Spann, vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Florida, said builders who contract out part of their work are among those at risk for having to pay someone else's damages. "Very often the general contractors are held accountable for the performance of others" involved in a building contract, Spann said.  "This legislation will ensure that the financial responsibility for any errors it apportioned fairly."

A few members of each party did cross the aisle to vote party lines, with Republicans mostly backing the business position and Democrats largely against the bill, aligned with plaintiffs' lawyers who represent victims of accidents, negligence or wrongdoing.