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Orlando Sentinel

Tort reform an under-the-table issue in governor's race

Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau 

October 18, 2010

TALLAHASSEE -- Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink is a big fan of lawyers. Her husband, former gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride, is a partner in a Tampa law firm. Her running mate – former legislator Rod Smith -- is a former prosecutor and plaintiff's attorney, as is his son.

And some of her biggest financial supporters file lawsuits trying to win money for injured clients from deep-pocketed businesses and insurers.

Republican nominee Rick Scott is also a lawyer, but he's made it no secret what he thinks about attorneys who sue businesses on behalf of injured people.

"When I'm governor, we're going to do tort reform," he said with a laugh during his first debate with Sink on Oct. 8.

Scaling back big jury awards in injury lawsuits may not be a kitchen-table issue in Florida's race for governor, but it is one commanding a large financial investment from doctors, businesses and trial lawyers.

Roughly one-fifth of the $10.2 million Sink has raised through her campaign and a related committee that's bought ads for her came from law firms, mostly trial firms.

"For most of us, it's not about Rick Scott. It's about the fact that for 12 years, we've given the Republican party absolute control over state government," said Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who has held three Sink fundraisers in the last year, including one at his Lake Mary home this month that featured Jimmy Buffett performing barefoot.

"And the old Ronald Reagan adage applies: Are you better off today than you were 12 years ago?"

Conversely, groups favoring more restraints on lawsuits are throwing millions of dollars into Scott's campaign, via the Republican Party of Florida – which along with the state Democratic Party, doesn't have to publicly disclose its fundraising for the fall until the weekend before the Nov. 2 election.

The Committee for Florida Justice Reform, a political group founded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, has shipped $205,000 to the state party, $80,000 of it since the Aug. 24 primary. Two separate Chamber-backed groups have given another $100,000 to Scott's electioneering committee, "Let's Get to Work."

William Large, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush and an officer with the Justice Reform committee, said there's a clear contrast between the candidates.

Scott, he said, has proposed "a very bold agenda for civil justice reform," while Sink hasn't talked about it and her Web site "is eerily silent on the issue."

Scott's Web site lists a half-dozen tort reform ideas he supports – ranging from limits on "bad faith" claims that third parties can make against insurance companies, to allowing auto-makers to present evidence of whether a driver was drunk in an accident when he or she sues over manufacturing defects. And Scott's stump speech is littered with references to limiting lawsuits he says are "killing jobs."

"Rick knows that is a red meat issue that raises money," said Morgan, who estimates he has raised $1 million for Sink.

"People don't even understand tort reform, but the industries that write big checks do, and that's the audience he's playing to."

Another big supporter of limiting the right to sue – doctors – says Scott has been crystal-clear about backing two of their top legislative priorities if he's elected: restricting the use of hired "expert" witnesses in lawsuits, and extending the government protection from large jury awards – called sovereign immunity -- to doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

Tim Stapleton, executive vice president for the Florida Medical Association, said the two candidates have both done a good job of communicating where they stand on tort reform.

After interviewing them both earlier this month, the FMA endorsed Scott. Stapleton called Sink's financial support from plaintiff lawyers "concerning." And he said that while Sink agreed there was "lawsuit abuse," she was unwilling to commit to a position on either of their top issues.

"I don't think she was willing to go as far to address those issues as Mr. Scott was," Stapleton said.

Scott, he added, "is someone we see eyeball to eyeball with."

The FMA has given $670,000 to the state GOP this election cycle, $100,000 of it coming since Scott's bruising primary with Attorney General Bill McCollum. The party has paid for at least $9.3 million of Scott's $18 million in television commercials through last week.

While Sink herself has been virtually silent on tort reform, her supporters have spoken out.

Debra Henley, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, which lobbies for the trial bar, said Sink "has said she is going to keep the courthouse doors open for the citizens of Florida, and Rick Scott has adopted the chamber's list of restrictions on the rights of individuals in the court."

She argued that both of the FMA's top issues – state licensing of expert witnesses, and government protection from excessive jury verdicts -- would "require more government spending and more government bureaucracy."

For instance, a state Division of Risk Management fiscal analysis last spring said that a narrower measure extending sovereign immunity protection just to emergency room technicians, paramedics and the doctors who treat patients there could cost the state at least $34.5 million a year in payouts and administrative costs. Extending the cap on lawsuit awards to all doctors who treat Medicaid patients would cost much more, Henley said.

Scott communications director Jennifer Baker agreed that Scott backed both of the FMA's issues "but would disagree that they would cost money or create new regulatory structures."

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at [email protected] or 850-222-5564.