Monday, Dec. 6, 2010
Florida lawsuit critics eager for their day in court
By Brandon Larrabee/News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE - In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush tried to push an expansive package of civil-justice changes through the Florida Legislature. Bills moved easily through the House; the main obstacle to some of the more sweeping ideas was the Senate.
Now, because of a new conservative wave that has swept over the upper chamber, the business community that has longed for an overhaul of the state's litigation system - a move supporters call "tort reform" - think that their day might have come at last.
"No question, tort reform is now going to be an issue that we're going to be able to get through the Senate without gnawing our fingers off," said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida, a business group.
Not as excited are the state's trial lawyers, who now face a possible onslaught of tort changes after an erosion of their support in the Senate. But Debra Henley, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, said her group was prepared for the fight.
"We've had tough fights on the rights and remedies of Florida's citizens for many years now," Henley said.
Part of the business community's optimism is shaped not just by the shift in the Senate, but by who is providing the new outlook: Some of the same supporters of the 2003 tort reform package.
"We have a lot of House members who served around that time who have moved over to the Senate," said Adam Babington, vice president for government affairs at the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Henley downplayed how significantly the upper chamber's shift would affect the group's ability to stave off tort reform measures.
"The Senate's a deliberative body," she said. "They're still a deliberative body."
To be sure, some measures were already moving through the Legislature with relative ease, including one - "slip-and-fall" legislation - that increases the burden of proof on a business owner accused of allowing his premises to become dangerous. Another caps the fees that the attorney general's office can pay to outside attorneys.
But the incoming senators are not the only new voice at the Capitol on civil-justice issues. Gov.-elect Rick Scott incorporated an overhaul of the courts a part of his "blueprint" in the 2010 campaign, highlighting a slate of measures backed by the business community.
A bill dealing with "crashworthiness" - essentially, a debate about whether jurors should be allowed to hear about the driver's possible role before deciding a car company's responsibility when a faulty vehicle crashes - has already been filed.
Scott has also touted:
- Changes to the state's "bad faith" laws involving insurance claims.
- Proposals to provide some protections, perhaps through the state's sovereign immunity, to doctors who treat Medicaid patients.
- A tightening of the state's expert witness standards.
Scott's transition team on regulatory reform includes William Large, executive director of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which supports tort reform.
Interest groups also expect a possible return of a measure sponsored in 2010 by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, that would have provided sovereign immunity to ER doctors.
Henley suggested that her group would reach out to Scott - a former health-care executive whose gubernatorial bid was his first run for office - as he begins to form his agenda.
"Gov.-elect Scott is new to these issues," Henley said. "We've been seeing this issues for 20 years."
But business organizations seem confident that the tide is turning.
"I think all options are on the table," Babington said, "and that's what's exciting for the business community."
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