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Alarm grows among business leaders as prejudgment interest bills move through legislature

Florida Business Daily Reports | Mar 1, 2017

The state Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted in favor of a bill that would allow prejudgment interest to be tacked on to awards in personal injury cases in Florida.

A similar bill was approved by a House subcommittee and has moved to that body’s Judiciary Committee.

Business leaders and tort reform advocates are watching the progress of the bills with some alarm, arguing it is another hit against the business community in a state that already has “one of the worst legal climates of all the states.”

That is the view of David Hart, executive vice president with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who said the business community is very concerned about the legislation.

Senate Bill 334, introduced by Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasato), requires a court to include prejudgement interest in an award from which the plaintiff recovers both economic and non-economic damage. It also requires a court to include that same interest on attorney fees and costs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Steube is chairman, voted 6-2 in favor of the bill. The House Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee voted 11-4 in favor of a similar bill, which was introduced by Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa).

Hart told the Florida Business Daily the bill “tilts the scales even more against business owners.”

“It will tilt the scales more in favor of trial lawyers and force businesses to just settle because if they wait it out, they will be paying 5 percent interest,” Hart said. “This is the trial lawyers’ No. 1 priority other than workers’ compensation.”

Hart said any legislation that allows plaintiff lawyers to settle earlier means they spend less time in court and therefore make more money.

Hart was reluctant to speculate on why the majority of lawmakers, including Republicans, are pushing these bills through the committees. But, he said, “I think the parties have really changed. There was a time when many people considered the Republican Party as the pro-business party. Some things have changed.”

Of the 12 organizations that contacted the house subcommittee to register an opinion, 11, mostly business groups, are opposed. The Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers, supports the bill.

Hart said his organization’s members are paying close attention to the passage of the bill and are concerned it has moved in the Senate and the House. He said the chamber discussed the issue with Gov. Rick Scott, but could not say whether any assurance of a governor veto was given.

Currently, in personal injury cases in Florida, a jury will award an amount, and then interest will be added until the payment is made. That makes senses as it encourages quick payment when a jury delivers a judgment, according to William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which advocates for pro-business tort reform.

In short, Large said adding on prejudgment interest is burdensome, complicated and takes away discretion from both judge and jury. It is much simpler for an award to be handed down and then interest to be charged to discourage delays in payments, Large told Florida Business Daily.