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Florida businesses inch closer to COVID-19 liability protection as bill advances

'Florida is known as one of the nation's judicial hell holes,' Sen. Jeff Brandes says
Posted at 5:04 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 17:04:52-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida businesses are a step closer to getting COVID-19 liability protections after a state House bill cleared its second of three committees Wednesday.

Shielding employers from frivolous lawsuits is a priority for the GOP here and across the country, but critics question whether the problem exists.

Antonio Tovar is the outgoing head of the Farm Worker Association of Florida. He said social distancing for his thousands of members is often difficult, and masks are not always worn or available.

Antonio Tovar
Antonio Tovar says protections for Florida farmworkers are weak with masks often not available.

"We actually have to build them ourselves," Tovar said. "We hired members of the community to build some masks back in March. Now that they are more available, there's no excuse for the growers not to implement it or enforce it."

Tovar is very apprehensive of COVID-19 liability protections. He worries they will make things worse.

"It is going to encourage the industry to be less responsible and to care less about the workers," he said.

Not so, say Florida Republicans.

Ahead of this year's lawmaking session, the state's majority party is advancing bills that members believe will protect businesses, churches and schools from only frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits.

"Florida is known as one of the nation's judicial hell holes," said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who's sponsoring a version of the legislation.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes
State Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring a law to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Among other provisions, SB 72 and HB 7 aims to protect defendants if a court finds they made a good-faith effort to follow virus protections. Brandes calls it a crackdown on the state's "sue and settle" culture.

"That's why you have to provide some kind of safe harbor for these businesses so that they'll be able to move forward," he said.

At the moment not many are suing. Florida Justice Reform Institute found only 53 COVID-19 liability suits across the state. Brandes contends more could be on the way.

"The simple truth is we're just at the beginning of this," said the senator. "Without this legislation, individuals would have four years to file these types of cases. We limit it to one year."

Democrats, however, see the bill as a solution in search of a problem. Members in both House and Senate committees have routinely voted down the legislation. Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, is concerned the bill would remove a check on bad behavior.

"What you're talking about is denying citizens access to court," he said. "That's the problem."

State Sen. Perry Thurston
State Sen. Perry Thurston thinks the proposed law would prevent residents from filing lawsuits that deserve attention during the pandemic.

The argument is now happening in Legislatures across the nation, accelerated after Republicans failed to get national protections approved, last year.

Florida's policy is among 21 states trying this year. (AL, AK, AR, CT, IN, KS, KY, MD, MO, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NY, ND, OR, SC, SD, VA, WA, WY) At least 16 state have enacted some kind of business or government shield, to date. (GA, ID, IA, KS, LA, MA, MI, MS, NV, NC, OH, OK, OR, TN, UT, WY)

Florida is likely to join them in the coming months. Republicans hold enough seats in both chambers and the governor's mansion, meaning there's little Democrats can do to stop the legislation from advancing.

"To be realistic, it looks like they already made their mind," Tovar said.

Tovar has accepted the policy is likely to pass but says workers won't forget the lawmakers that made it happen. He warns opponents will take their fight to the ballot box in future elections.

Florida lawmakers have also filed what is essentially a companion to the business shield. This new bill would protect health care providers from similar COVID litigation.