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Tampa Bay Times

Florida could make it harder to sue polluters, assisted living owners

The bills are backed by powerful business groups


An aerial of a massive sinkhole that opened up underneath a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer plant in Mulberry in 2016. [ Times (2016) ]

By Lawrence Mower Times staff

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers in recent years have passed sweeping changes that make it harder to sue insurance companies.

This year, they could extend protections to a variety of companies, including in instances where businesses pollute communities or lose consumers’ personal data to hackers.

The bills are backed by powerful business groups, but most of them have seen some bipartisan pushback.

Here’s what lawmakers could pass in the final weeks of this year’s session:

HB 789/SB 738

These bills would make it harder to sue polluters for economic damages or personal injuries under Florida’s Water Quality Assurance Act.

In 2004, fishermen used the act to sue the fertilizer giant Mosaic after one of its sites spilled toxic water into a creek leading to Hillsborough Bay.

During committee testimony last week, the executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association said fishermen would no longer be able to sue for damages under the act if the bills passed.

Mara Hatfield, a lawyer representing Palm Beach County residents who were victims of a cancer cluster in the early 2000s, also raised concerns. The residents sued nearby aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney for allegedly mishandling radioactive materials. A jury in 2022 found the company wasn’t responsible for the cancer, although it found it “failed to exercise reasonable care in the use and disposal of radioactive materials,” according to WPTV.

“If you pass this amendment … those parents cannot sue for the cancer that was caused by the unpermitted discharge of hazardous material on their neighbor’s property,” Hatfield said.

House bill sponsor Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, said the intent of the water act was never to include personal injuries, only economic ones in certain situations.

A 2019 decision by the Florida Supreme Court, however, ruled that the plain reading of the law included personal injuries. The case involved a tow truck operator who was badly burned while removing a truck carrying batteries that crashed and spilled battery acid on the road.

Under the proposed legislation, the driver could sue for damages to his tow truck, but not for his burns, an advocate for trial lawyers said last week.

The bills are supported by two powerful big-business groups in Tallahassee, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

The Supreme Court’s 2019 decision created a “chilling effect” for businesses, said Adam Basford, Associated Industries of Florida’s vice president of governmental affairs.

“There is an underlying sense of unknown as far as what could be out there as far as personal injury liability,” Basford told lawmakers on Thursday.

Republican lawmakers voted for the bill this week, but several expressed concerns.

Pesticide resellers and applicators
SB 1252/HB 347

Under this legislation, people wouldn’t be allowed to sue businesses that distribute, sell or apply pesticides unless the businesses were involved in manufacturing or modifying the pesticide.

Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, said the bill was important after a 2016 lawsuit against Monsanto’s parent company resulted in a $290 million verdict in California. It was later reduced to $21.5 million.

In that case, a school groundskeeper claimed the company’s Roundup product caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A California jury ruled that the company disregarded the dangers around its pesticide’s active ingredient, glyphosate. (The Environmental Protection Agency’s opinion is that the ingredient is not harmful.)

The jury’s verdict led to thousands of subsequent lawsuits, which have had a “chilling effect” on the agricultural industry, causing some distributors and vendors to stop carrying products, Collins said.

Lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns with the bill.

“Those who profit from the sale of a product should be held accountable for harms resulting from the use of that product,” Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, said this week.

HB 1367/SB 720

Since the 1970s, asbestos-related lawsuits have surged. Asbestos and silica are known lung carcinogens, and manufacturers and distributors were repeatedly cited for downplaying the danger.

When filing an asbestos-related lawsuit in Florida, a victim has to include a form with basic information.

Under this legislation, plaintiffs would have to disclose more information on that form: their smoking history, the types of products they were exposed to and the names and addresses of anyone who is “knowledgeable” about the victim’s exposure.

House bill sponsor Robbie Brackett, R-Vero Beach, said the form isn’t admissible in court, and it would help screen out frivolous cases.

But Democratic lawmakers questioned why a person’s smoking history must be disclosed up front. They also questioned how a plaintiff could expect to find the names and addresses of people they worked with decades ago.

Assisted living facilities
HB 995/SB 238

Unlike nursing homes, which provide more complex medical care, assisted living facilities typically offer a more homelike environment for seniors.

According to Sen. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, the number of lawsuits against the companies has grown, causing costs to go up.

“It should be concerning to all of us,” Burton said.

Burton’s proposal would make it impossible to sue the facilities’ “passive investors” — companies or people that might own the facility but are not involved in its day-to-day operations.

Assisted living facilities are increasingly owned by real estate investors, which have been accused of prioritizing profits over care, The Washington Post reported in December.

Lawmakers have raised questions about whether the legislation makes the industry less safe. Burton conceded the Senate bill “needs some work.”

Data breaches
HB 473/SB 658

With data breaches by hackers on the rise, lawmakers are considering shielding companies and local governments from lawsuits. Under the bills, companies and governments would not be liable for data breaches as long as they “substantially comply” with federal security protocols.

Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said the goal is to “incentivize” companies and governments to adopt best practices.