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Trial lawyers, businesses spar over legislation to restore liability waivers

TALLAHASSEE — If a child rides in a race car or climbs a rock wall, a parent is typically expected to sign a company's liability waiver acknowledging the risks.

But in Florida the document is meaningless after a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling voided a parent's authority to waive liability. The far-reaching decision hit theme parks and adventure attractions hard.

An effort backed by Disney to shield such companies from negligence lawsuits emerged Tuesday. A similar version failed last year.

The measure, HB285, is the most contentious of four bills designed to restrict lawsuits against businesses — all of which are top priorities for the Republican leadership.

It is also one of the first major turf wars this legislative session between the business community and trial lawyers.

The bill, which cleared its first hurdle in the House on a 9-3 committee vote, would restore a parent's authority to sign a waiver for a minor child.

"Parents make broad decisions for their children all the time," said Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, the sponsor.

But a provision Horner added at the last minute also would restrict a parent's ability to file a lawsuit for damages to cases where the company exhibits "gross negligence … established by clear and convincing evidence," a higher legal standard than those used in medical malpractice or auto negligence lawsuits.

Other language protects employers and companies from liability against the misconduct of an employee unless they participated or consented to the actions.

"This would raise the standard enough to discourage lawsuits," Horner said.

He added provisions to allow lawsuits in certain circumstances to appease critics, but those critics now argue that the legislation is even more problematic than the previous version.

"This bill has taken us back draconian steps from last year," said Michael Haggard, president of the trial lawyers lobbying arm, the Florida Justice Association.

Without the threat of litigation, Haggard reasoned, businesses would have no incentive to prioritize safety.

"It gives immunity to businesses to hurt kids," Haggard said. "It's a higher standard that only applies to children."

Horner cast the issue in an economic light, saying businesses need a legal shield from liability or they will go out of business.

Rob Lock, the owner and pilot at Waldo Wright's Flying Service in Polk County who advocated for the measure last year, said he lost nearly half of his business for six months after the court decision.

Lock said he resumed flights for children but now shoulders the risk of liability. Visitors "realize that what they are doing there is an inherent risk," he said. "They expect to sign something like that."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Trial lawyers, businesses spar over legislation to restore liability waivers 02/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 8:57pm]
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