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Property Casualty 360

Proposed Florida laws are good news for insurers—as plaintiff lawyers push back

Parkland shooting victims and survivors were among the South Florida residents gathered Thursday in opposition to the proposed changes.

By Lisa Willis | March 06, 2023 at 12:04 AM

FL Capitol

Florida State Capitol Building in Tallahassee. (Credit: SeanPavonePhoto/Adobe Stock)

As the larger tort reform bill, HB 837, is making its way through the legislature in Tallahassee, South Florida plaintiff attorneys and clients are up in arms over not only about the proposed law, but another bill introduced this week, Senate Bill 1274.

This bill, introduced by state Sen. Colleen Burton, is anticipated to be up in the Senate Tuesday afternoon, and then again in the House on Wednesday afternoon, said Miami lawyer Stephen Forst Cain of Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain.

Cain is in the state capitol fighting the bill and a slew of proposed amendments surrounding the controversial piece of legislation aimed at what Gov. Ron DeSantis says is “comprehensive reforms to decrease frivolous lawsuits and prevent predatory practices of trial attorneys that prey on hardworking Floridians.”

“I think this is Big Insurance companies convincing legislators that we need to be a business-friendly state. The problem is that in the meantime, they’re trampling on the rights of everyday Floridians and making our safe state unsafe,” Cain said. ”That bill, frankly, makes our state unsafe. It disincentivizes business owners and apartment complexes from taking appropriate security measures, and I think will result in more crime not less—all to get big insurance more money.”

‘All types of lawsuits’
Both bills plus the proposed amendments are the talk of Tallahassee and South Florida.

Davie legal ethics professor Robert Jarvis said 837 is a terrible bill.

Jarvis, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University, says at its base level, the bill continues the insurance industry’s long effort to reduce payouts to plaintiffs.

“The industry has never had a more supportive governor or legislature, and that is why it is striking now and finding success,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said it would be a change to the comparative negligence system—used for decades— and designed to help defendants, who in most cases are companies.

“All plaintiffs, whether crime victims or not, take a chance when they file a lawsuit that they will be unsuccessful,” he said. “And HB 837’s changes are not specifically aimed at crime victims. Instead, they apply broadly to all types of lawsuits.”

Changes would affect premises liability
But that’s of little comfort to former victims of crime who gathered in Miami Lakes Thursday to voice their concerns.

The group was comprised of victims of violent crime, victims of negligence and those who lost loved ones to tragedy, most of which sought financial restitution via lawsuits in the past.

Spokesperson Renee Williams with the advocacy group National Center for Victims of Crime said the proposed changes make her worried for Floridians “… and a little bit angry.”

“I think that there has been a misnomer that this is tort reform,” Williams said. “And while I totally respect some of the policy purposes behind this bill, it’s disheartening that the amendment that joined this week was done with absolutely no consideration to crime victims.”

Williams is concerned with the wording of the “premises liability for criminal acts” by third parties in the bill, which she said alludes to owners or principal operators of multifamily properties and businesses having certain presumptions against liability.

“If business owners and if businesses in the state of Florida have a crime committed on their property, as long as they can point to the perpetrator or the criminal as being responsible, they’re no longer responsible for anything, including common sense safety measures that keep individuals and communities safe,” she said.

‘Slip it through the legislature’
Jarvis, the ethics expert, said some lawyers are reluctant to discuss the proposed changes.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers, of course, clearly are against it, (but) why won’t any defense lawyers speak? I think the answer is obvious: This is a bad bill for consumers, and its opponents are hoping to slip it through the legislature,” he said. “Recognizing, however, that this is not going to slip through the legislature, they are calling it tort reform, when of course, it is no such thing.”

“I can’t think of any lawyer who might be willing to give you a quote supporting bill, ” Jarvis added.

‘Taking on the trial lawyers’
But some business groups welcomed the bills.

Calling the proposed changes the most consequential civil litigation reform in a generation, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, applauded.

“Governor DeSantis has repeatedly pledged to take on the toughest issues, and he has delivered,” Large said. “Now, with help from the legislature, he’s taking on the trial lawyers in dramatic fashion, and leading Florida towards a more predictable, stable legal environment that focuses on fairness and personal responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale attorney John Uustal, founding partner with Kelly Uustal, said the proposed changes sound great at first, but the bills’ authors need to consider the real-life ramifications if the bills were to have been law when the Parkland shooting occurred.

Parkland shooting victims and survivors were among the South Florida residents gathered Thursday in opposition to the proposed changes. They wanted to share their concerns about how they think the bill would affect others like them in the future, should something like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre happen again.

“It would have destroyed the Parkland families’ ability to hold anyone else accountable,” Uustal said. “It would be a get-out-of-jail-free card for all types of businesses and government entities that violate the law or in other ways commit negligent acts that result in people getting killed or hurt.”