(The Center Square) – Companion House and Senate bills propose providing immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits for Florida businesses that have “substantially” complied with public health guidelines.
However, in an effort to fast-track the measures, both bills introduced this week exclude liability protections for health care providers, with Republican leaders in both chambers assuring separate legislation will address the medical industry.
House Bill 7, filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, and Senate Bill 72, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, extend COVID-19 protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits and religious institutions who make a “good-faith effort” to follow government health guidelines.
The House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee will review HB 7 on Wednesday when the panel meets in preliminary deliberations that begin next week in Tallahassee before the legislative session convenes May 2. SB 72 has not been assigned to a committee.
Under the bills, liability protections would apply retroactively to a newly filed lawsuit if signed into law, and plaintiffs would be required to obtain affidavits from Florida physicians attesting that 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, under the bills.
“A small restaurant owner shouldn’t have to worry about making payroll because a predatory actor seized on an opportunity to sue and settle,” McClure said. “HB 7 does what 21 other states across the country have done already, and it does it better.”
“The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an uncertain legal climate for Florida businesses, which could result in serious and ongoing economic challenges for our entire state,” Brandes said. “These important protections will aid in separating the serious and meritorious claims brought against a Florida business from the claims that are unfair or inappropriate as our state continues to fully reopen and recover.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said protections for health care providers will require a separate bill and discussion.
“Florida’s health care providers have other considerations and risks that deserve greater discussion and evaluation,” Sprowls said in a statement. “We owe it to them and the vulnerable populations they serve to be heard before we address their concerns with another bill.”
Sprowls said he has assigned House Health and Human Services Committee Chairperson Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, “to engage in dialogue next week about protections for health care providers.”
The Florida Hospital Association, Florida Health Care Association, Florida Chapter of the American College of Surgeons, Florida Society of Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery and Florida Society of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeons are among medical associations and trade groups expected to lobby for expansive liability protections for health care operators.
An array of consumer advocates want liability protections for businesses limited, especially for those in the health care industry.
Brandes cautioned patience.
“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,” he said. “I can’t see Gov. (Ron) DeSantis allowing the Legislature to adjourn without a sufficiently strong health care liability legislation.”
Orlando attorney John Morgan, who spearheaded the successful medical marijuana and minimum wage ballot measures, said nursing homes do not deserve COVID-19 liability protections.
“We now know nursing homes are murder factories. Half of the deaths are there because they are filthy,” Morgan said. “Tort reform has made it already impossible to sue them. Cameras should be in every room. We have cameras on our dogs at the vet.”
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