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Fla. House, Senate Unveil COVID-19 Business Protections

The bills could be amended, but if passed and signed into law by Gov. DeSantis, they would provide Fla. businesses, schools and churches some protection from COVID-19 related lawsuits alleging damages, injuries or deaths – a concept supported by Florida Realtors.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Legislature appears ready to fast-track a proposal that would provide immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits to businesses that have “substantially” complied with public health guidelines.

On Wednesday, the House and Senate released identical bills for consideration during the 2021 legislative session, which will start March 2. Florida Realtors® generally supports the concept of protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The bills address non-healthcare businesses only. Neither the House bill (HB 7) nor the Senate measure (SB 72) contains lawsuit protections for health-care providers, which makes some health-care lobbyists uneasy.

But physicians, nursing homes and other facilities aren’t being ignored, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version. He said health-care providers will be handled in separate, yet-to-be released legislation.

The newly filed bills would provide businesses, schools and churches protection from COVID-19 related lawsuits for damages, injuries or deaths. The bills would require plaintiffs to file claims within one year after incidents. They would be required to 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 House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee is scheduled to vote on the House bill when it meets next week. The House Health & Human Services Committee will hold a workshop next week on health care-related liability issues

NFIB Florida Executive Director Bill Herrle said his principal concern is front line non-health care businesses and that the new bills would provide protections to the “bulk of the businesses out there that have been operating every day since COVID started.”

The bill could be amended during the legislative process, but if it passes and Gov. DeSantis signs it into law, the proposal would apply retroactively. In addition, the changes would remain in effect permanently.

Brandes said he worked with many groups over the last several months but not plaintiffs’ attorneys who have criticized business groups for pushing the lawsuit limits.

“If you look up in the sky in Florida, you see the sun and a billboard advertising an attorney,” Brandes said. “So there is no restriction to access to the courts if they have the resources to stick a billboard every 30 feet in Florida.”

Source: News Service of Florida. News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.