In a high-stakes debate, the Florida House on Friday began moving forward with a controversial plan designed to shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits.
The plan (HB 837) comes after years of business groups calling Florida a “judicial hellhole” because of the frequency and costs of lawsuits. But opponents, including plaintiffs’ attorneys and about 50 bikers who converged on the Capitol, said the bill is tilted too far toward insurers and would make it hard for injured people to pursue lawsuits.
Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said insurance companies do not always do the “right thing” for policyholders.
“My concern is about the consumer, the everyday citizen, and having access to the courts,” Gantt, an attorney, said.
But House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, and other supporters said the bill would bring “balance” to the legal system. They said excessive litigation plays a major role in driving up costs for consumers on such things as insurance coverage.
“Every day I hear from businesses saying that we have a problem in the civil-justice system and we need remedies,” Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Lakewood Ranch Republican who is helping sponsor the bill, said.
The Republican-controlled House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 12-6 along almost straight party lines to approve the bill. Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, joined Democrats in opposing the bill, which is filed for the legislative session that will start March 7.
As an indication of the stakes of the issue, people crowded one of the Capitol’s largest committee rooms as the House panel spent more than four hours on the bill.
The bill includes a series of proposed changes to try to limit lawsuits. Among the most-controversial issues would eliminate what are known as “one-way attorney fees” in lawsuits against insurers.
One-way attorney fees have long required insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who are successful in lawsuits. Lawmakers in December eliminated one-way attorney fees in lawsuits against property insurers, but the bill would extend that to other lines of insurance, such as in auto-insurance cases.
Supporters of the change argue that one-way attorney fees provide an incentive to file lawsuits that increase insurance costs.
“Floridians are paying some of the highest automobile-insurance rates in the country, and, frankly, this is a tax by the rich plaintiffs’ bar against the poor working families of Florida,” said Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. “It needs to be addressed.”
But opponents said eliminating one-way attorney fees would make it difficult for injured people to get attorneys to represent them against insurers. Rep. Daryl Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, likened the situation to “David and Goliath” and said most people can’t afford to hire lawyers on an hourly fee basis.
“Right now, the one-way attorney fee statute helps level the playing field and gives Floridians a fighting chance,” Campbell said.
As another example of the proposed changes, the bill would revamp laws about “comparative negligence.” Under current law, juries determine each party’s percentage of fault in negligence lawsuits, with damages awarded based on the percentages.
For example, if a plaintiff is determined to be 60 percent at fault and a defendant is 40 percent at fault, the defendant would be required to pay 40 percent of the damages amount. But under the bill, defendants would effectively have to be at least 51 percent at fault before they could be forced to pay damages.
DeWayne Terry, a plaintiffs’ attorney who represented the Florida Justice Association at Friday’s meeting, objected to the proposed change, saying the issue is “about accountability.”
“Do not allow the insurance companies to get a free pass on not requiring the person that’s wrong to pay their fair share,” Terry said.
But Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, the change would be good policy.
“Under current law, a person who is 99 percent at fault for an accident can sue another person who’s only 1 percent at fault,” Black said. “This creates unjust outcomes, and it incentivizes lawsuits that really should never be in the system.”
As an outgrowth of that issue, Democrats unsuccessfully sought an exemption for motorcycle riders who do not wear helmets and get injured. Under the Democrats’ proposal, juries would not have been able to consider that bikers were not wearing helmets when apportioning fault about injuries.
“What it (the proposed amendment) allows is for people to exercise their freedoms,” Rep. Hillary Cassel, D-Dania Beach, said. “And let’s remember, we’re talking about law-abiding citizens.”
But the committee voted 13-4 to reject the proposal, as a group of bikers watched from the audience.
Kyle Weaver, an attorney representing the Florida Trucking Association, opposed the proposed amendment and said “life is about choices.”
“Whatever their decision is, if they choose not to wear a helmet, that’s their choice, but it should be evidence of comparative negligence,” Weaver said.