by: Christine Sexton
News Service of Florida
The Florida House on Friday passed two COVID-19 bills that Republican leaders made a priority for the 2021 legislative session, as they seek to protect businesses from lawsuits and crack down on vaccination scams.
House members voted 83-31 to approve a bill (HB 7), sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, that would shield businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19. Republicans touted the legislation as a must-pass bill to protect Florida’s economy and return people to work, but many Democrats decried it as being overly broad and eliminating the public’s access to courts.
House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said procedural hurdles that plaintiffs would have to overcome to file COVID-19-related lawsuits are “so gargantuan they invoke names like Everest, Kilimanjaro and Denali.”
But Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, encouraged lawmakers to support the bill, saying it would allow businesses to operate safely without the fear of getting sued.
“This bill is about jobs. It’s about jobs for those businesses and those employees and those people who are ready to get back to work,” Leek said. “Pass this bill, and let them get back to work.”
But Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said the bill would provide blanket immunity --- a characterization that Republicans disputed --- to businesses at the expense of workers and other people.
“For me, this bill has a when-pigs-fly sort of quality to it. You can file a COVID-related tort claim and you’d have the possibility of succeeding when pigs fly, or when hell freezes over or when doctors do things that they know they can’t do,” he said. “This bill shouldn’t be our priority, it shouldn’t be the second bill we hear.”
All of the Republicans who were present Friday voted for the bill, while eight Democrats crossed party lines to support it. They were Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee; Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee; Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami; Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon; Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes; Rep. David Silvers, D-Lake Clarke Shores; Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton: and Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington.
The vote came after Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill on the House floor Thursday and during committee meetings. The Democrats’ amendments, for example, would have provided workers’ compensation insurance protections for certain front-line workers and prevented employers from taking retaliatory actions against employees who have COVID-19 or fear they are positive for the virus.
Under the bill, plaintiffs would be required to obtain affidavits from physicians to file COVID-19 lawsuits against businesses. The physicians would be required to attest that plaintiffs’ COVID-19 infections were due to the conduct of the defendants, something that bill opponents say physicians aren’t qualified to do.
Additionally, the bill would authorize judges to dismiss lawsuits if they determine that defendants made a “good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance at the time the cause of action accrued.” If more than one standard or guidance was in effect at the time, the bill would allow defendants to comply with any of the guidances.
For cases that aren’t weeded out by judges before going to trial, plaintiffs would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that defendants were grossly negligent, reckless or committed intentional misconduct.
The Senate has been moving forward with a similar bill (SB 72), and, ultimately, the two chambers would have to work out any differences before a bill could be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Also, those bills address non-health care businesses. Separate bills are being considered to offer liability protections to health-care providers, though Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, raised the possibility this week of combining the issues into one bill.
Before the House approved the liability bill Friday, it voted 113-0 to approve a measure (HB 9), sponsored by Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, that seeks to prevent scams that have taken place during the pandemic.
The bill, a priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, stems from people using authentic-looking websites to run scams that purportedly offer access to COVID-19 vaccines or personal protective equipment.
It would lead to felony charges for people who run the scams and would authorize the attorney general to seek injunctions to shut down websites or other platforms that are used to spread fraudulent information.
“This is an important piece of legislation that protects our consumers against fraud during a pandemic,” Zika said.
--- News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.