William Large

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Sunshine State News

Crash Liability Bill Fast-Tracked Along With Larger Reforms

February 27, 2011 - 6:00pm

A bill that would allow juries to hear more evidence and consider the fault of all parties when considering damages in a product liability case is getting the same treatment as other, more comprehensive reform bills in the state Senate.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, stated last week that controversial bills dealing with education reform, Medicaid reform and a potential constitutional amendment to opt out of the year-old federal health-care law will be acted on next week when the legislative session begins.

But Senate Bill 142, sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is also getting a first-week look.

The bill would overrule DAmario v. Ford Motor Company, a 2001 court case that found that the initial cause of an accident was irrelevant in a crashworthiness case, or a case that seeks damages for an enhanced injury caused by an alleged product defect. For example, in a slow-velocity crash caused by a driver that was texting, drunk, high, or otherwise distracted or impaired, that ended in the explosion of the car caused by a defective part, the events leading up to the crash would not be heard by a jury.

The Senate version of the bill is ready for the floor after sailing through the committee process, where Richter urged his fellow lawmakers to let juries hear all the facts surrounding a case, and was fond of saying that Lady Justice is blind, but she shouldnt be deaf.

"This is just common sense tort reform," Richter said Monday.

Supporters of the bill say the DAmario ruling tilted the playing field to make it easier for trial lawyers to seek damages from automobile manufacturers.

This has dramatically changed how crashworthiness cases are handled, said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a group that fights for tort reform.

While the bill has had a relatively smooth ride in the Senate, the bills path through the House is more complicated. An amendment that Large says is antithetical to the bill was added last month in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, would instruct juries to consider only the fault of those responsible for the accident for injuries resulting from the accident, and only the fault of those responsible for the product default for enhanced injuries, or injuries that would not have been sustained if not for the product default.

"It quite frankly, guts the bill. It does exactly the opposite of what the bill was intended to do," Richter said.

Large says the amendment essentially codifies DAmario, but other groups fighting the entire bill disagree.

Paul Jess, general counsel for the Florida Justice Association, formerly known as the Academy for Florida Trial Lawyers, prefers that no law dealing with crashworthiness cases be passed, but called Gaetzs amendment a compromise.

Clearly the House bill (as amended) is a middle position, Jess said.

Another amendment that was tacked on to the House version of the bill creates an exception for first responders -- police officers, firefighters, EMTs -- that places them under the DAmario ruling. A spate of cases involving police officers driving Crown Victorias -- a Ford vehicle -- that allegedly resulted in enhanced injuries brought the issue to the fore.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, offered a similar amendment to the Senate bill last week, but his efforts failed.

Theyre required to use those vehicles, they didnt have a choice, Fasano said, adding that he may try to tack on the amendment again when it comes before the Senate floor.

In discussing the amendment last week during the Senate Budget Committee, Richter said Fasanos amendment was an effort to essentially neutralize the bill, since it would open it up to Equal Protection constitutional challenges because it would treat first responders differently under the law than the rest of the public. Fasano, however, voted for the unamended version in the committee and says he supports the bill even without the amendment.

"(The trial lawyers') goal is to create two separate classes, thus not providing equal protection under the law," Richter said.