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St. Petersburg Times

Politically wounded personal injury lawyers salvage something

By John Frank, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

They overcome bruises to get favorable bills on liability waivers and sits against the state.

April 20, 2010

TALLAHASSEE - The final passage of the two litigation measures Tuesday gave Florida trial lawyer two legislative victories in a year when few were expected.

With little opposition, the House sent Gov. Charlie Crist a bill to allow parents to sign liability waivers for children participating in risky activities and another measure to double the caps on lawsuits against the state.

The legislation represented the final two pieces of a litigation of a litigation overhaul package that moved swiftly after House and Senate leaders reached a deal with personal injury trial lawyers and business interests.

The trial bar largely lost two early fights when legislation to cap legal fees for lawsuits on behalf of the state (HB 437) and another bill to limit slip-and-fall legislation (HB 689) won approval.

On the scorecard, it appears the two perennial opponents broke even. But the lobbying arm of the trial lawyers didn't hesitate to declare victory.  The Florida Justice Association is typically a powerful roadblock to bills that restrict lawsuits, but it entered the legislation session bruised.  The group wore a black eye after it acknowledged sending a race-baiter flier in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat John Thrasher in a state Senate special election in September. 

Even so, dire predictions of diminished clout didn't stop the trial lawyers from striking favorable compromises on the major issues and killing the opposition's legislation, including an effort to give emergency room workers immunity from lawsuits. 

The initial child waiver legislation would have let theme parks and adventure attractions waive gross negligence, but the weaker measure (SB 2440) protects against only inherent risk, a much lower legal standard.  And the increase in the sovereign immunity caps for claims against the state (SB 2060) went from $100,000 to $200,000 for an individuals, the first increase in 30 years.

"I think the people exaggerated any affect on us," said Mike Haggard, the trial bar's president. "We're back, and we aren't going anywhere."

The boisterous attempt led to a familiar back-and-forth as the two sides tried to frame the session's accomplishments. 

"It's a hard-fought issue with several concessions," said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a lobbying organization created by the state Chamber of Commerce. "But at the end of the day, we moved the ball forward."

Large and other proponents of the so-called tort reform suggest the trial bar is covering up for a dismal session.  He said the lawyers' group killed three litigation measures it opposed last session but struck compromises this year to save face.

Still, Rep. Dave Murzin, a Pensacola Republican, was disappointed.  "You spray a weed with Roundup, it will grow back," he said. "This is just a shot of Roundup.  They are like a weed." 

Senate President Jeff Atwater said the legislation represents common ground.

"I'll let someone else do the scorekeeping," he said. "I don't mind when the session is over if everybody declares victory."

John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.