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St. Petersburg Times

Legal vote a big win for big business

Jennifer Liberto - March 31, 2006

The Senate gave a resounding 27-to-13 nod on Thursday to scrubbing a long-debated legal doctrine that makes sure winning plaintiffs get their jury awards by forcing wealthy defendants to pay more than their share of fault.

It was arguably the biggest battle in the Legislature yet pitting big business against the trial lawyers.

The trial lawyers lost. Again.

The repeal of what's called "joint and several liability" - which Gov. Jeb Bush has vowed to sign - is the third major blow to the trial lawyers' groups in three years. And some are wondering if the most recent loss signals the waning power of what historically has been the only major interest group with enough money and muscle to challenge the business and insurance interest groups.

Trial lawyers say they're increasingly frustrated at the "big business" lock on the political process that has developed under Bush's eight-year tenure. The governor even personally lobbied some wobbly senators this week on the tort measure.

"There are no more checks and balances on the insurance industry and the excesses of big business," said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

While the debate over joint and several liability spans nearly three decades, some say the trial lawyers' political prowess really started to falter in 2003 with medical malpractice reform.

That year, the Legislature capped malpractice jury awards. Trial lawyers were able to soften the blow by negotiating higher dollar thresholds than what Gov. Jeb Bush and the House had wanted.

A bigger setback came in 2004, with constitutional Amendment 3, which trial lawyers failed to fight off. The measure, pushed by the Florida Medical Association, sought to cap fees paid to lawyers who file medical malpractice suits on contingency.

The Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers spent $25-million fighting Amendment 3, but they lost, 64 to 36 percent.

"Politicians take notice when you spend that much money and lose that badly; and obviously lobbying the Legislature hasn't been any easier," said Tallahassee trial lawyer Lance Block, past president of the Academy. "That said, the shellacking we took over Amendment 3 doesn't justify handing big business the abolishment of joint and several liability."

Last session, the Legislature passed a measure that gave immunity to companies that design safe traffic patterns while roads are under construction. They also made it harder to file some asbestos claims. However, the Senate continued to ignore efforts to repeal joint and several liability.

This year, the business lobby, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation, among others, made the repeal of joint and several liability their priority.

The timing was right. In December, House Speaker Allan Bense, R- Panama City, allowed discussion on the House floor for a bill banning gifts from lobbyists, a priority of Senate President Tom Lee's that passed.

In return, Lee, R-Valrico, said Thursday he owed the House speaker a "courtesy" to get joint and several liability at least heard in the Senate. Lee said Thursday that there was no quid pro quo trade, and he did not ask senators to vote for the repeal.

Nevertheless, just getting heard in the Senate was a victory for the business lobby. The bill sailed through the probusiness House in the first weeks of the session.

The groups lobbied Democrats in the House and Senate about the issue for the first time.

William Large of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, an advocacy group funded by business groups, has concentrated all his efforts on the repeal for months, several business lobbyists said.

Probusiness lobbyists hired a cameraman to record representatives who voted against the bill in its first House committee. They also produced attack campaign pamphlets against Rep. Kevin Ambler, R- Lutz, who voted against the measure.

"The cameras at the first (committee) stop was bad. That did not need to happen," Bense said Thursday.

"The letters to Kevin Ambler's district did not need to happen. There are times to play hardball in politics and business and there are times when you don't play hardball. To me this issue just sold itself on its merits."

By the time the measure came to a final Senate floor vote, it was expected to pass, but the margin of victory was surprising. Three Democrats voted for it: Larcenia Bullard of Miami, Mandy Dawson of Fort Lauderdale and Gwen Margolis of Aventura. Only two Republican senators voted against it: Dennis Jones of Seminole and Alex Villalobos of Miami.

Five senators who voted Wednesday for an amendment that would have softened the bill switched sides Thursday, including Victor Crist of Tampa and Nancy Argenziano of Dunnellon.

Crist said he received a hundred calls from angry constituents who had heard about his impassioned speech advocating the amendment. He said he decided to switch Thursday morning after cooling down.

Trial lawyers say the defeat has only strengthened their resolve, as they target bill supporters who are up for re-election this fall, a group of 10 Republicans that includes Crist.

"We're going to be more involved than ever in the election cycle," said Carruthers of the lawyers' academy.

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