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Sharp differences over changing Florida's law on personal injury and damage lawsuits

WGCU | By Hayley Lemery
Published March 29, 2023 at 12:16 PM EDT

Sharp differences

Sophia Spero was driving and injured in a collision with another vehicle. 
She said the other driver was impaired, and Spero now works with 

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Spero is concerned about
to Florida laws on personal injury legal claims.

Critics of legislation in the Florida House and Senate dealing with a range of civil litigation matters say they benefit insurance companies and not victims. Proponents say the measures target lawsuit abuse.

Governor Ron DeSantis approved House Bill (HB) 837 on March 27 and the complimenting Senate Bill (SB) 236 is currently laid on the Senate table and is nearing law eligibility. The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee approved the revision of the senate bill in mid-March. Republican Senator Travis Hutson endorsed those revisions.

Opponents of these legislative changes believe this will strip Floridians of their legal rights in civil cases. However, those in favor believe this will eliminate lawsuit abuse by limiting what can be shared to a jury, further protecting businesses from negligence.

Richard Purtz is a Southwest Florida board-certified civil trial attorney and managing partner of Goldstein Buckley Cechman, Rice and Purtz, which specialize in personal injury cases. He says these changes will benefit insurance companies and not victims.

“Primarily [HB 837 is] aimed at insurance and people that bring personal injury claims to limit what they can do, what they're entitled to, limit what doctors can charge, protecting insurance companies from what's known as bad faith claims," Purtz said. "It also shortens the statute of limitations from four years to two years, and makes some other changes that are designed to limit what injured parties can collect in a lawsuit.”

People came to the meeting on SB 236 to voice support or opposition to the changes. At the beginning of the meeting, Democratic Senator Lauren Book voiced her concerns to Senator Hutson about making victims relive their tragedies if offenders join the civil verdict.

Hutson said he’s heard this before.

“In these proceedings, the jury can already hear about the crime, they can already hear about the criminal measures that are happening. So, I don't see how that victimizes someone twice,” Hutson said. “Now the difference is, we're telling the jury on the verdict form, there may be some fault on the other side, too. You guys have to determine that out and that's going to be between the lawyers for the plaintiff and the defendant, and those lawyers are going to argue that in court, and I believe a competent jury will determine what's best for that outcome.”

Motorcyclists wearing shirts reading “Bikers over Billionaires” came to the meeting. Most disapproved of the bill and how it would impact crash victims, saying it would only benefit insurance companies.

“It’s not often you see bikers cry, and I saw people shed a few tears,” Holly Hill of Sarasota said. “If you were to look at us, people [with] shirts like mine. You might notice that we belong to a certain demographic, and that's the demographic that helps you get the super majority that you enjoy in this legislature today.”

Purtz says that injured parties would be limited to what they can present at trial if they don’t have insurance or are under a letter of protection with a physician under HB 837.

"To limit what a doctor can charge to 1.4 times the Medicaid rate will basically drive all the doctors out of doing any type of work,” Purtz said. “It's almost impossible to find a spinal surgeon, there are none in Southwest Florida that work for Medicaid rates, we have to go out to somebody, and this will just make the problem worse. So, it's very difficult to convince any doctor to work for that money."

Andy Bolin, a board-certified civil trial lawyer at Bolin Law Group, spoke on behalf of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, showing support for the bill in how it deals with accuracy and damages.

“You've heard a lot about how the accuracy and damages portion of this will correct phantom damages that are being submitted to our juries,” Bolin said. “But I also want to point out that it will also help cure a problem where, because of these inflated past medical expenses, good faith disputed claims, who my clients want to settle.. are unable to do so because of these inflated damages.

Anna Melendez is a small business owner of a distribution company in Tallahassee that delivers to over 1,200 convenience stores. She says being a small business owner isn't for the faint of heart.

“There are rewards but there's also a lot of risk and it seems like it's getting riskier and costlier every day. As a matter of fact, my liability premiums have gone through the roof, and my warehouse has a big roof,” Melendez said. “It's crystal clear to me that our laws are failing small business owners in our state of Florida. All you have to do is drive down any street or highway and you'll see all the billboards are for lawyers, one after another with actual dollar signs saying ‘please hire me and get paid.’ Small business is a massive target for frivolous lawsuits.”

Sal Nuzzo of The James Madison Institute, a right-wing advocacy "think tank," supported the transparency and damages portion of the senate bill.

“What this bill functionally does in this respect is to provide correct information to juries whose job it is to seek the truth and make accurate judgments for damages in their jobs,” Nuzzo said. “The status quo means that we keep and maintain a cottage industry of fraud and abuse over medical charges. The bill for which lands on every single Floridian paying an insurance premium in this state.”

Sophia Spero was in a crash on October 18, 2018, due to an impaired driver in her hometown of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She was a 17-year-old senior in high school and a server in a retirement community. She was driving to her part-time job around 3:40 p.m. when she was struck by a 67-year-old impaired driver with prescription medication in his system and a blood alcohol content of 0.14.

She doesn’t know the extent of the other driver’s injuries, but she had a compound fracture in her left femur, a broken right kneecap, three factures in her right hand and wrist, a compression fracture to a vertebra, and a concussion.

“I'm obviously not grateful or lucky that this happened to me in any sense of the word,” Spero said. “But I am thankful that my injuries were solely bone injuries because bones can heal.”

She spent 10 days bedridden in a local hospital and had surgery to put metal rods and screws in her left femur. Then she was transported to a pediatric rehab hospital in Delaware for two and a half weeks. She was sent home in November of 2018.

“It's really hard being 17-years-old and having a walker and watching your friends on social media, doing all these things that you should be there doing, but you can't be because of somebody else's choice,” Spero said.

She returned to school in January of 2019, three months after her accident. She used to run and cheer in high school, and the crash limited her physical abilities. She was homeschooled for months.

She was going to physical therapy two to three times a week and had a manipulation procedure in March of 2019. This was to give her full range of motion in her left leg again, but the procedure didn’t work. In December of 2020, she had surgery to get the metal hardware taken out of her left femur.

“Most people are injured in accidents reach out to attorneys relatively soon after their injury," attorney Richard Purtz said. "But what happens is not all the treatments complete in 60, or 90, or even 180 days, and sometimes doesn't finish until one or two years passes, because people have multiple surgeries from that one single event.”

Before getting this surgery two years after her crash, Spero said she was in constant pain and didn’t have full range of motion in that leg.

"I can do physically anything that I would like to do or anything that I would want to do prior to my crash happening, which is amazing,” Spero said. “But mentally, this is with me every single day.”

She was at a service-learning fair her freshman year when she met people from an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She ended up volunteering with them for the next three years. She now works full-time as the program specialist for MADD and gives 60 presentations in the community to reach around 12,000 people a year.

Attorney Richard Purtz brought up the point that ever since Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida last September, hundreds of people have contacted his firm with complaints of their house damages.

"They have damage to their house and says it's $75,000 or $100,000. They're getting offered $2,000 or $3,000 by their insurance company. Well, before the law was changed, if you bring a suit against your insurance company and you won, and your insurance company had to pay your attorneys fees, well, that no longer exists,” Purtz said.

“So now people have to pay money out of their pocket or money out of their ultimate settlement to pay their lawyers and it makes it almost impossible for any insured personnel to get 100% reimbursement for their losses and rebuild their homes,” Purtz continued. “It's a terrible situation, it's very unfavorable to the insured, the people are being hurt the most. And insurance companies are pocketing the profits, and it's just not a fair system we currently have.”

Purtz says HB 837 includes nothing that favors or helps injured victims.

“In fact, it makes some of these things make it almost impossible to get cases resolved,” Purtz said.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at  [email protected]