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Governor Backs Liability Protections Amid Pandemic

DeSantis cabinet meeting Gov. Ron DeSantis' remarks were welcomed by business groups that have been pushing him to provide lawsuit protections during the pandemic.

Saying that fear of lawsuits is holding back the economy, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he supports placing limits on coronavirus-related litigation and is willing to consider such a bill during a potential special legislative session in November.

The comments marked the first time DeSantis has publicly supported limiting lawsuits for Florida businesses that are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis said the Legislature could consider a bill to give liability protections to “run-of-the-mill businesses” during a session that also could involve his plan to crack down on disorderly protesters. DeSantis unveiled the plan about protesters Monday and suggested Tuesday that a special session could be held when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for a Nov. 17 post-election organization session.

“There is a lot of concern about liability,” DeSantis said. “I believe it holds the economy back.”

The governor did not clearly explain what types of protections he would support, talking in sentence fragments when discussing the issues with reporters. 

““If you just have a store and someone … you cannot be held liable … first of all, how would you even prove someone was  …. so we’ve never done that with any other type of virus where you could be sued,” DeSantis said.

The governor said “there’s some stuff going on that’s a little different than run-of-the-mill business” that wouldn’t qualify for protections and mentioned clinical laboratories.

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.

DeSantis’ remarks were welcomed by business groups that have been pushing the governor to provide lawsuit protections during the pandemic. Businesses across the state closed down or scaled back in March and April to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with reopening efforts gradually starting in May.

“This is the first time I have heard the governor publicly support this, but I think he supports getting the economy open and getting everyone back to work,” said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a business-backed group that lobbies on liability issues. “He’s a trailblazer in this respect. He is leading the way on the need to protect businesses from difficult causation lawsuits about how COVID-19 was transmitted. Businesses are in fear that if they open up they are going to be sued.”

Bill Herrle, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, also praised DeSantis.

“Business owners have been thrust into the role of being a public health officer. Every day they run their business they need to make decisions about whether Joe can come into work because he says that he’s not feeling well. Should we send Joe home?” said Herrle, whose group is made up of small businesses. “Or Joe comes in and says, ‘My wife, Mary, tested positive.’ So do we send Joe home? So it’s all those hundreds of day-to-day decisions. It is, but it’s not, alone, just the concern for exposure to liability for having caused someone to contract COVID. It’s all the hundreds of decisions we make that are being driven by COVID as well. So we are very happy to see him do this.”

DeSantis said he thought the liability issue would be settled by the federal government as part of a COVID-19 relief package. But Congress has been bogged down and unable to reach a deal on new legislation. 

“The grand bargain was supposed to be liability protection for business and then aid to states,” DeSantis said. “The Dems wanted aid to states, and the Republicans wanted liability. But that hasn’t happened.”

Following DeSantis’ remarks, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis late Tuesday issued a statement outlining what he identified as his three guiding principles for liability protections.