The House and Senate appeared Thursday to nail down a wide-ranging plan that would help shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits, with the House expected to pass the measure Friday.
The plan, which also cleared its final Senate committee Thursday, deals with issues such as attorney fees, time limits on lawsuits, comparisons of fault, “bad faith” cases against insurers and premises liability.
Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Lakewood Ranch Republican who is helping sponsor the House version (HB 837), said the plan would bring “balance” to a system plagued by excessive litigation.
“This bill is decades in the making and long overdue, as Floridians have been forced to pay more for food, clothing, shelter and, yes, insurance for both their automobiles and their homes,” Gregory said as the House took up the bill Thursday. “This is because the civil justice system in Florida is out of balance.”
But critics said the plan is tilted too far toward insurers at the expense of injured people, who will face new roadblocks in pursuing lawsuits over negligence. They also said it will not lower insurance rates.
“Floridians will not see lower insurance premiums as a result of this legislation,” Rep. Hillary Cassel, D-Dania Beach, said. “This legislation does not include any requirement that they (insurers) reduce their premiums. … And let me tell you, these insurance companies are not going to let go of their premiums. What they’re going to do is they’re going to hold onto the money, and now your constituents are not going to be able to hold them accountable.”
After behind-the-scenes negotiations, the House and the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee approved amendments Thursday that reflected agreements between bill sponsors. The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee voted 13-6 to approve the Senate version (SB 236), readying it to go to the full Senate.
The plan includes:
— Largely eliminating 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. The bills include a narrow exception that would allow one-attorney fees in a type of lawsuit known as a “declaratory action” if insurers totally deny claims, bill sponsors said.
— Reducing from four years to two years a statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits.
— Revamping 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 bills, defendants would effectively have to be at least 51 percent at fault before they could be forced to pay damages.
— Making it harder to pursue “bad faith” lawsuits against insurers. Generally, bad-faith cases involve allegations that insurers did not properly handle and settle claims and can be costly for insurers.
— Helping shield owners of property such as apartment complexes from premises-liability lawsuits if people are injured in crimes. Courts would consider the fault of “all persons” — including the criminals — in determining liability.