Florida Justice Reform Institute, Logo

The Ledger

Lobbyist Implores Kissimmee Chamber to Back Tort Reform or Risk Hefty Lawsuits
By MIKE GROGAN / The Reporter

Posted Feb 9, 2006 at 12:01 AM

KISSIMMEE -- A lobbyist who is pushing tort reform in the Florida Legislature has urged small-business owners in Osceola County to get behind the effort that would make them less vulnerable to expensive lawsuits.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a business advocacy group based in Tallahassee, told members of the Kissimmee-Osceola County Chamber of Commerce on Friday that they need to get involved in tort reform to have any hope of succeeding against lobbyists for lawyers who make their livings from civil litigation.

“There is no better organized pressure group in Tallahassee than the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers,” Large said. “We need businesspeople doing the same thing.”

Appearing as guest speaker for the chamber’s monthly Breakfast of Champions meeting at the Kissimmee Civic Center, Large said one measure currently working its way through the legislature is House Bill 145, which is sponsored by State Rep. Don Brown, R-De Funiak Springs. It concerns civil cases in which there are multiple defendants.

Under current state law, Large said, defendants who share fault in a civil case often end up paying more than the percentage of liability would dictate. That, he noted, is because liability is set in percentage of increments: 10 to 25 percent, 25 to 50 percent and 50 percent or greater.

That means that someone at the lower end of one of the increments can actually be forced to pay a percentage at the higher end.

“The bill would ensure that if any business gets a percentage of fault, that’s the percentage they pay -- no more, no less,” he said.

But, he said, tort reform is very difficult to get through the legislature because of the strong lobbying effort being made by trial lawyers.

“It is something that is very definitely affecting the business community in Florida,” Large said. “That’s why change is needed.”

He added that among the other types of tort reform on which his group is working is changing the state’s class action laws in which multiple plaintiffs gather to file an action. It is also seeking to reform the way premises liability cases are viewed under state statutes.

Attending the breakfast meeting for the first time, lawyer Mel Pearlman of Celebration questioned whether passing tort reform laws would open the door for businesses to provide shoddy and unsafe goods.

“Assuming you’re successful, what incentive would companies have to make sure they provide quality and safe products?” Pearlman asked.

“I don’t know any business that intentionally creates a product that is unsafe,” Large, a former trial lawyer himself, responded.

Pearlman said civil cases are not necessarily determined by whether a company acted intentionally, but are most often decided because of negligence that has led to injury -- or worse.

To that, Large answered that monies that businesses now have to spend as a result of high liability insurance rates due to enormous payouts in civil lawsuits would be better used to address safety issues. And when Pearlman asked if he thought companies would use those savings to improve quality and safety, Large answered that he did, indeed, think that would be the case.

The Breakfast of Champions is held on the first Friday of each month at 7:45 a.m. The chamber started the program in August to provide a morning event for businesspeople.

“We’ve been very pleased with how its worked out,” said Mike Horner, the chamber’s president. “We’ve had attendance figures ranging from 70 to 200 people, depending on the time of the year and who the speaker is.”

He said the event is mainly for small-business people to give them a chance to network and exchange ideas with other small business owners in the community.