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House Panel Backs COVID-19 Legal Shield For Florida Businesses

February 04, 2021 08:48 AM

Rep McClure  State Rep. Lawrence McClure of Dover Florida House of Representatives (2018)

The Republican-controlled Legislature continues to fast-track a proposal that would shield Florida businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, positioning the measure to be among the first bills passed after the 2021 session starts next month.

Members of the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee voted 11-6 Wednesday to advance the House version of the bill (HB 7), filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover.

“It’s a one-in-100-year pandemic,” McClure told the committee in explaining why he thinks the legislation is needed.

The measure, which has broad support from business organizations, would make it harder to file coronavirus-related lawsuits against businesses and to win such lawsuits.

Republicans, who comprise the majority of committee members, beat back attempts Wednesday to change the proposal. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, filed an amendment that would have altered part of the bill that would require state-licensed physicians to submit affidavits saying that plaintiffs’ deaths or injuries were a result of “acts or omissions” by defendants.

Driskell’s proposed amendment would have changed that to requiring a “medical expert” to file an affidavit confirming that the person was infected with COVID-19 during the relevant time period. Driskell argued a physician couldn’t make the determination required in the bill without having additional information that would become available through what is known as discovery, a process when attorneys seek documents or information ahead of trials.

Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large, however, contended the requirement in the proposed bill was similar to one already in place in medical malpractice cases.

“If it was done in medical malpractice, it can be done in cases like this,” said Large, whose business-backed group lobbies on issues aimed at limiting lawsuits.

Driskel’s amendment failed in an 11-6 party-line vote.

The legislative session will start March 2, and Replublcan leaders have made lawsuit protections for businesses a top priority.

The bill is slated next to be considered by the House Judiciary Committee and then could be ready to go to the full House.

The Senate version (SB 72), filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed to the Commerce and Tourism Committee.