Push to Reform
Florida Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Mark Wilson says this might just be the year the Legislature finally repeals joint and several liability - over the loud protests of trial lawyers.
If not, he has a stern warning for legislators who vote against reform.
"Be very aware it's an election year," Wilson says. "The business community in Tallahassee is more united than I've ever seen it."
The chamber, which represents 137,000 businesses, has teamed up with the Florida Justice Reform Institute and about 25 other associations to change the law that requires businesses to pay more in economic damages in negligence lawsuits because they have the ability. The 2006 session begins March 7.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, says: "It's a fundamental doctrine of fairness. A business should pay its fair share, no more, no less."
Associated Industries of Florida, a pro-business group, says reform is needed to "create a fair and predictable judicial system, which is crucial for attracting new business and keeping established businesses in our state."
The majority of voters also support legal reform, Wilson says, adding that polls show two-thirds of Florida voters think a defendant in a negligence lawsuit should only pay only what the jury finds he's responsible for.
Chamber President Frank M. Ryll Jr. says Florida has the 42nd worst legal climate in America. "Repealing joint and several liability is the single most important justice option we have," he adds.
Last year, a bill to change the law passed the House but didn't get out of the Senate, Wilson says. Chamber leaders expect this year's session to be more productive.
"The reason we're so bullish on legal reform is legislators are going to make a very important choice between policy and politics," Wilson says. "Do they listen to the political threats of the trial lawyers or do they champion the policy wishes of the voters?"
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Brown, a Republican from DeFuniak Springs, is expected to pass the House and make it to the Senate floor by the end of March or beginning of April, Wilson says.
"The Senate will determine whether or not we're going to have legal reform this year," he says.
Senate President Tom Lee is "providing good leadership," Wilson says. Still, it's a vote he expects "to go down to the wire."
The chamber has a $5 million legislative budget and 25 lobbyists, he says, adding: "We're not spread thin. We're focused like a laser beam on this issue."
Large says he's cautiously optimistic the Legislature will adopt the reform, which is also supported by Gov. Jeb Bush.
In the Senate, Dan Webster, a Republican from Winter Gardens, introduced the companion bill.
There are several other business related issues the Chamber and other busines groups will be focusing on this session. To protect against special interest groups, the chamber would like to make constitutional amendments harder to amend. "Florida has the easiest constitution in the nation to change," Wilson says.
Any special interest group with deep pockets can hire a signature-gathering company to get an issue on the ballot, he says. And once an issue gets on the ballot it's likely to win approval. Since 1968, voters approved 77% of all issues on the ballot.
"If you've got $2 million burning a hole in your pocket, you hire a Nevada-based signature gathering company and they'll get your issue on the ballot," Wilson says.
To protect against fraud, the chamber wants the law changed so that petition gatherers aren't paid by the signature, and those who collect signatures are required to wear a badge showing they're being paid. Plus, the state should adopt a system to verify adequately that signatures belong to registered voters, he says.
In addition, the chamber is placing an initiative on the ballot this fall. If it passes, any issue that will cost Florida more than $53 million annually must be approved by two-thirds of all voters for passage.
"We want to add some fairness back into the system," Wilson says, "not shut it down."
The chamber supports a tax exemption on research and development that's expected to cost the state $25 million annually.
"Everyone wants higher paying, high tech jobs in Florida," he says. "Companies create those jobs. We need to create an incentive for these companies to move to Florida."
A bill to eliminate the sales tax manufacturers pay on the purchase of machinery and equipment is expected to pass this session, he says. To qualify for the tax break, a manufacturer must expand output by at least 10%.
Business vs. NRA
In an unusual twist, the chamber finds it's up against the National Rifle Association, which is pushing for a law to allow gun owners to carry a gun to work.
"We're not interested in taking anyone's guns away," Wilson says. "But this bill would attempt to take away the property rights of home owners and business owners."
Employees should leave guns in the car or at home while working, he says. And they shouldn't carry them into someone's home without permission.
The NRA bill, being pushed in every state, is an attempt by the group to boost its membership, Wilson says. The group has created a solution to a problem that's nonexistent, he says, adding, "now it has become a major issue."
Small business threats
Unions across the country are pushing the so-called Wal-Mart bill or fair-share health care bill. It requires companies with 10,000 or more employees to pay 9% of payroll on health insurance. Pro-business groups have criticized bills like these in Massachusetts and Maryland.
Wilson says the Massachusetts model shows it's not a good idea. That state's legislature lowered the number to 50 employees. Such a bill could destroy small businesses.
"This is a very dangerous bill," he says, "and we will do everything we can to stop it."
AT A GLANCE
JOINT AND SEVERAL LIABILITY
The following is an overview of how economic damages are currently apportioned under state law:
Defendant's fault is more than 10% but not more than 25%
• If plaintiff is partially at fault for accident, defendant is jointly and severally liable for economic damages up to $200,000 over his share of damages.
• If plaintiff has no fault, defendant is jointly and severally liable for economic damages up to $500,000 over his share of damages.
Defendant's fault is more than 25% but not more than 50%
• If plaintiff is partially at fault, defendant is liable for economic damages up to $500,000 over his share of damages.
• If plaintiff is not at fault, defendant is jointly and severally liable for economic damages up to $1 million over his share of damages.
Defendant's fault is more than 50%
• If plaintiff is partially at fault, defendant is jointly and severally liable for economic damages up to $1 million over his share of damages.
• If plaintiff has no fault for accident, defendant is jointly and severally liable for economic damages up to $2 million over his share of damages.
Source: Florida Justice Reform Institute www.fljustice.org