By Christine Sexton, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A scheduled committee vote on a high-profile bill that would protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits was delayed Monday after the measure’s primary sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was delayed in another meeting.
Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairman Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, told The News Service of Florida that the lawsuit-limitation bill (SB 72) would most likely be considered at his committee’s next meeting, now scheduled for March 2, the same day as the start of the 2021 legislative session.
Republican legislative leaders, backed by business groups, have made a top priority of passing a measure to help shield businesses from lawsuits related to the pandemic. Senate and House leaders have fast tracked identical bills, with the House Judiciary Committee slated to vote on the House bill (HB 7) on Tuesday.
The Senate bill, however, got delayed Monday when the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Brandes chairs, had a lengthy debate on a proposal to change how settlement offers are made in civil lawsuits. Brandes is the primary sponsor of the proposal (SB 686), which ultimately cleared the Judiciary Committee by a slim 6-4 vote.
Immediate attempts to contact Brandes were not successful.
Hooper’s Commerce and Tourism Committee was scheduled to meet until 6 p.m., but he announced that a vote on the bill was being delayed shortly after 5:30 p.m. Before announcing the delay, Hooper asked if any of the committee members wanted to present the bill on behalf of Brandes, but no one offered.
Hooper said the Senate president’s office denied his request to reconvene after 6 p.m., when the Judiciary Committee would have finished debating Brandes’s other bill.
Under Senate rules approved in November, committees are not authorized to meet after 6 p.m without approval from Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
“My pecking order isn’t as good as someone else’s,” Hooper said of his request being denied by the Senate president’ s office.
The proposal by Brandes and the identical House bill sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, would make it harder for people to successfully sue businesses for damages, injuries or deaths related to COVID-19. The proposal does not address legal protections for health-care providers, which are being handled in separate bills.
The proposal for non-health care businesses would require plaintiffs to file claims within one year after incidents and obtain affidavits from Florida physicians attesting that the defendants’ acts or omissions caused the damages, injuries or deaths. Businesses that courts deem have “substantially” complied with government-issued health standards or guidance would be immune from liability.
The bills also would make it harder to win lawsuits, raising the bar of proof from simple negligence to gross negligence and upping evidentiary standards from the current “greater weight of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”
The bills are supported by groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Businesses-Florida. But other groups think the Legislature is going too far.
“We are looking at a bill that writes a blank check to businesses and encourages bad behavior in the future,” Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said at a Monday news conference, where he was joined by representatives of the Florida Consumer Action Network and the Service Employees International Union.