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Feb 15, 2024 By Jim Ash

A measure making it easier for businesses to avoid asbestos-related claims is headed to the House floor, over the objection of trial attorneys and veterans’ groups.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 15-6 to approve HB 1367 by Rep. Robbie Brackett, R-Vero Beach.

Rep. Robbie Brackett  Rep. Robbie Brackett 

Republican Chair Tommy Gregory, a Lakewood Ranch attorney, pronounced the bill fair to all parties and noted that supporters have been pushing the proposal for more than five years.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of years of work by a lot of stakeholders,” he said.

Among other things, the measure would require a plaintiff to submit an affidavit describing such things as smoking history and types of exposure, such as brake pads or construction materials.

The document could not be used as evidence, but a judge would be required to dismiss, without prejudice, any claim that does not include the form.

“It’s difficult to comprehend why we’re going to allow someone to make a sworn a statement and then not use it in court. That’s how fair this bill is,” Gregory said.

Statistics show that 35% of plaintiffs are eventually dismissed from asbestos-related claims, but only after a business has spent thousands of dollars in attorney fees, Brackett argued.

“What we’re trying to accomplish here is simply stop the sue first, discover the facts later, mentality,” he said.

Screening meritless claims would help injured plaintiffs obtain justice faster, Brackett said.

“It cuts down on the chase and find the right defendants, so we can make them whole,” he said.

The measure is supported by Associated Industries of Florida, the U.S. and Florida chambers of commerce, the Florida Justice Reform Institute, and the insurance industry.

Critics, including veterans’ advocacy groups, warned that lung diseases associated with asbestos exposure can take decades to diagnose and are quickly fatal when discovered.

Creating another procedural hurdle could defeat the purpose of bringing a lawsuit, warned Florida Justice Association General Counsel Bill Cotterall.

“Once they have that diagnosis, it’s basically a terminal condition. Anything that delays justice is problematic,” he said.

Cotterall suggested that instead of mandating dismissal, sponsors consider creating a “good cause” waiver for any inability to complete the form.

Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, noted that the 25 million veterans in the U.S. make up a small percentage of the population, but represent 30% of all mesothelioma deaths that are linked to asbestos. Veterans can suffer multiple exposures for decades without being aware, and obtaining their service records to confirm exposure can take months or years, Hinson said.

Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, a North Miami attorney, said she supports protecting businesses from meritless claims. But she argued the measure would deny justice to the gravely injured.

“I’m not saying don’t release the defendants who shouldn’t be there, but give the people who are suffering a chance to prove their case, to get some kind of redress,” she said.

HB 1367 cleared the Civil Justice Subcommittee 14-3 on February 1, its only other committee of reference.

A Senate companion, SB 720 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, cleared Judiciary 8-1 on February 4. After being put on a fast track, it awaits only one more hearing, in Rules.