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Lawmakers Pass and DeSantis Signs COVID-19 Legal Protections

Gov. DeSantis quickly signed SB 72 after the Florida Legislature passed it, giving Fla. businesses new protection against lawsuits filed over COVID-19 claims. Florida Realtors supported the change to help brokers and clients avoid unknown legal risks.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State lawmakers on Friday gave final approval to a bill that will shield businesses – ranging from nursing homes to grocery stores to restaurants – from coronavirus-related lawsuits, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on Monday. The new law’s effective day is “immediately,” and the protections apply retroactively.

The measure, which the House passed in an 83-31 vote, was a top priority for business groups that had been pushing for the legal protections since the pandemic began in spring 2020. The Senate passed the bill (SB 72) last week.

Supporters of the legislation (SB 72) contended that shielding businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19 was needed as the state continues to recover during the pandemic. The issue was one of Florida Realtors’ top priorities this year.

“The future of Florida depends on the ability of our businesses and health care providers to stay in business,” says Rep. Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican and a primary sponsor of the bill.

The bill establishes new rules in personal injury lawsuits related to COVID-19. For example, people who file personal injury lawsuits that don’t allege medical malpractice or violations of nursing-home resident rights must first get state-licensed physicians to sign affidavits that the defendants caused the injuries or damages.

Additionally, business owners are immune from liability if courts determine they made good-faith efforts to substantially comply with government-issued health standards or guidance.

Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Tom Feeney said in a statement that the legislation was “the most pressing issue” for businesses that worked on a task force about reopening the state’s economy during the pandemic.

“Now, with this legislation, Florida businesses can predict their COVID-19-related litigation risks, remain viable and continue to contribute to the state’s economic recovery and well-being,” says Feeney, a former House speaker.

In pursuing COVID-19 medical malpractice claims or nursing home-related claims, people filing lawsuits need to not only obtain physician affidavits, they’re also required to prove that the health care providers’ actions were grossly negligent – a higher legal threshold than before. Health care providers that substantially complied with authoritative or applicable government-issued health standards or guidance related to COVID-19 would also have immunity.

“I think this provides doctors the appropriate level of protection for having done the right thing,” says Chris Nuland, a Jacksonville attorney who lobbies for physician organizations.

Physicians were the first to push for the lawsuit protections, asking DeSantis in March 2020 for an executive order to limit liability. The Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, and the Florida Hospital Association followed with similar requests asking for protections from civil and criminal lawsuits.

DeSantis did not reply immediately, but in recent months has publicly supported protections, especially for nursing homes, which were closed to outside visitors for nearly six months to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

DeSantis maintains that a fear of lawsuits has made nursing home operators afraid to reopen their doors to visitors.

In a statement, Florida Health Care Association CEO Emmett Reed said the bill will ensure nursing homes can “continue to direct their limited resources where they’re needed most – caring for residents and supporting staff.”

Source: News Service of Florida