Both bills will go up for vote when the Legislature goes back in session in March.
The Florida Legislature has fast-tracked bills that would provide wide-ranging liability protections for businesses which have “substantially” complied with most coronavirus-related rules and regulations.
According to The Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Senate and House of Representatives have released identical bills for consideration at the start of the state’s legislative sessions, which begins on March 2nd.
Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican and Speaker of the Florida House, said the bills are intended to shield corporations and small businesses from over-zealous or inappropriate litigation.
“We are fast-tracking this COVID-19 liability bill to ensure that there is no potential for unscrupulous litigation to threaten Florida’s economy recovery,” Rep. Sprowls said. “Ours is the most aggressive liability protection bill in the nation.”
“Florida businesses and organizations that do the right thing should not fear being drowned by massive litigation costs.”
However, the Tampa Bay Times notes that neither proposal—House Bill 7 nor Senate Bill 72—contains protections for health care providers. That omission has purportedly been a source of concern for lobbyists.
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who is sponsoring SB 72, said the health care industry will get its own, custom-tailored proposal. That bill is still in the works, but is expected to be released before the Senate’s session commences in March.
“There is an incredible amount of detail that needs to go into the health care issue, and that needs to take a little more time,” Brandes said. “I can’t see Gov. [Ron] DeSantis allowing the Legislature to adjourn without a sufficiently strong health-care liability legislation.”
Chris Nuland, a health care lobbyist representing a number of physician specialty groups, told the Times he does not like Brandes’ bifurcated approach and would prefer the Florida Legislature cover all its bases in one go.
“These heroes have put themselves in harm’s way for almost a full year to protect the health of our citizens,” Brandes said. “To place them in legal jeopardy for their sacrifice is inexcusable, and the Legislature should address that injustice immediately.”
The Capitolist suggests that, no matter the bills’ popularity among congressional Republicans, the proposals are likely to face steep opposition from personal injury and trial attorneys.
Paul Jess, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, told the Herald Tribune that broad liability shields encourage businesses to make unsafe choices.
“From a public policy point of view, if I’m a business now and there’s no immunity from COVID liability, I’m encouraged to do things properly and safely, to keep people from thinking of suing me,” Jess said. “But if a bill passed that gave me total immunity, what is my motivation for protecting the public?”
“As a business owner, I’d say, “Come on in, we don’t require masks, we don’t have social distancing,’” Jess said. “’We don’t care. You can’t sue us, we get total immunity.’”
Senate Republicans say concerns like Jess have either been addressed by the bills or will be addressed by amendments.
One solution proposed by congressional conservatives is only exempting those businesses from liability which have largely complied with coronavirus restrictions.
However, such a caveat would likely be so vague that it’d lack real legal meaning.