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Lawyers feeling the Florida Legislature's love again

“Lawyers are back!"

Gov. Charlie Crist made that declaration in West Palm Beach last year soon after taking office. The memory lingers because of what happened in Tallahassee over the past few weeks.

In West Palm Beach, the ex-attorney general had spotted a fellow lawyer in a crowd. Crist wanted it known that the legal profession would not be shunned as it had been during the Jeb Bush years.

"Fortunately, I'm not a lawyer," Bush liked to say, as he battled the trial bar on issues such as capping jury awards in medical malpractice cases.

Not only are lawyers back, but trial lawyers are back in force. It's enough to make Jeb wonder how quickly times have changed.

The trial bar scored a number of victories during the 2008 legislative session. The biggest was its role in thwarting the Transportation Department's proposal to buy CSX's rail lines in Orlando for a commuter rail. As part of the deal, CSX wanted the Legislature to grant it immunity from negligence lawsuits when the company's freight trains used the proposed commuter line.

When trial lawyers hear the word "immunity," they say they hear a lack of justice for victims. Their critics say they hear the sound of money.

But Senate Republicans, led by Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Alex Villalobos of Miami, kept the CSX deal off track.

Trial lawyers also killed a bill sought by Attorney General Bill McCollum to cap contingency fees when outside lawyers represent the state. Like most anti­lawyer legislation, it died in the Senate.

Then there's the NRA's "guns to work" bill. Trial lawyers were initially neutral, even though it's sure to trigger more lawsuits. But they supported it after Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, tried to amend it to help businesses by granting blanket immunity for gun incidents in the workplace.

"That was a very bad amendment," said trial lawyer lobbyist Paul Jess, who helped to kill it.

But what had trial lawyers quietly celebrating at the end of the session is a provision that largely escaped attention in the major property insurance bill.

On Page 23 of Sen. Jeff Atwater's 114-page bill (SB 2860) appears a new legal basis for suing an insurance company for failing to pay the undisputed part of a homeowner's claim within 90 days when part of the claim remains in dispute.

Lawyers who secured the provision say it is the first time in a decade that the Republican Legislature created a new cause of action — a right to sue.

Surprisingly, the change even received the reluctant support of Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, an insurance agent and no friend of the trial bar.

Brown says it's unfair to consumers for insurers to use delays to duck claims. He would have preferred regulatory sanctions, not a pass to the nearest courthouse. But because he negotiated much of the bill, Brown felt he had to support it all.

"It's a trial lawyer's dream come true," Brown said. "Any time they're licking their chops before this thing is signed by the governor, you know trouble's on the way."

Not so, says the trial bar lobbyist Frank Petosa: "The insurance companies will no longer be able to game the system."

The trial bar's effectiveness is a direct result of its pragmatism in helping elect moderate Republicans in the Senate.

The trial bar backed Atwater in his first race in 2002, and he will become Senate president if he beats Democrat Skip Campbell, a trial lawyer.

It's revealing that the trial bar, formally known as the Florida Justice Association, will be neutral in this closely watched race, though individual lawyers can take sides as they wish.

"We've never been a partisan organization," Jess said. "We're an issue-driven organization. We've always had a tendency to support those people who support us."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Lawyers feeling the Florida Legislature's love again 05/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 11:15am]

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