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DeSantis Stays Quiet on Coronavirus Lawsuit Protection Issue

Gov. Ron DeSantis did not sign on to a letter by 21 Republican governors sent to congressional leaders arguing that businesses, health care workers and schools need lawsuit protections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Christine Sexton | July 22, 2020 at 12:28 PM

Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Twenty-one Republican governors sent a letter this week to congressional leaders arguing that businesses, health care workers and schools need lawsuit protections because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did not sign on.

Congress is considering another COVID-19 relief package, and many Republicans contend that liability protections need to be part of any legislation that is ultimately passed and sent to President Donald Trump.

“To accelerate reopening our economies as quickly and as safely as possible, we must allow citizens to get back to their livelihoods and make a living for their families without the threat of frivolous lawsuits,” the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said. “As public policymakers, it is our duty to provide clarity, consistency, and stability to our citizens and their businesses, and the uniformity that federal law provides is critical to America’s industries that work across state lines.”

DeSantis’ office didn’t immediately respond to The News Service of Florida’s request for comment or explain why he didn’t sign onto the document, which was touted by the Republican Governors Association. DeSantis was one of five Republican governors who did not sign on to the request, along with the governors of Georgia, Massachusetts, South Dakota and Vermont.

It wasn’t the first time that DeSantis, who is an attorney, has been mum on the issue of lawsuit protections.

DeSantis received letters in April from associations representing hospitals and nursing homes asking him to issue an executive order protecting their members from liability amid the pandemic. The Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest nursing-home association, sent a letter to DeSantis on April 3 requesting he provide nursing homes with civil and criminal protections, including safeguards from suits stemming from staffing or resource shortages.

Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp on Tuesday declined to comment on this week’s letter. “We’re going to keep our focus on ensuring our facilities have the resources they need to keep their residents safe and protected right now,” Knapp said in an emailed statement to the News Service.

The Florida Hospital Association sent a similar letter to DeSantis on April 22 requesting that he temporarily provide legal protections to hospitals. The association proposed that the protections from civil and criminal suits last through Oct. 1. Attempts to contact the hospital association Tuesday were not immediately successful.

The first groups to ask DeSantis for protections amid the pandemic were doctors. The Florida Medical Association and the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association joined with the Florida Justice Reform Institute, an organization that focuses on lawsuit limits, and asked DeSantis in March to issue an executive order limiting liability and providing sovereign immunity protections for doctors who were complying with emergency orders that shut down optional health-care services. The letter also asked DeSantis to extend the state’s “Good Samaritan Act” to apply to physicians working during the pandemic.

DeSantis did not issue any of the requested executive orders and avoided answering media questions about the requests.

Attempts to limit lawsuits, an issue commonly known as tort reform, often spur fierce political battles in Tallahassee, with plaintiffs attorneys squaring off against business and health care groups. Opponents of such limits generally contend that they penalize people who are injured because of the actions of businesses or health care providers.

Despite DeSantis’ lack of action on the issue during the pandemic, Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large said Tuesday that legal protections still are necessary.

In part, Large said a time frame people have to file lawsuits against businesses or health care providers should be shortened from the current four years to one year. Large also said evidentiary standards and culpability standards also need to be heightened to provide protections businesses need.

While DeSantis didn’t approve the requests, Large said he remains optimistic that the governor supports lawsuit protections.

“The first opportunity the Legislature addresses any subject dealing with COVID-19, such as the budget, we will ask for appropriate liability [protections],” Large said.

Christine Sexton reports for the News Service of Florida.