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Business lobby fights to limit consumer suits

If you've ever owned a house, driven a car or flown on an airplane, then pay attention.

A major fight is brewing in the state capital that could make it harder for consumers to go to court against businesses.

On Tuesday, the folks pushing for the change _ Florida's powerful business lobbyists _ unveiled a report they hope will persuade lawmakers to revamp the state's civil justice system and give them more protection from costly court battles.

Their findings: Limiting lawsuits would save businesses statewide $1-billion a year, a savings they say amounts to more than $50 per Floridian and could give the state's economy a big boost.

"We think it's our responsibility in the Florida business community to do anything we can to improve the Florida economy," said Bill Herrle, a Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Reform legislation "is the key to unlocking a $1-billion ball and chain."

The business coalition also released the results of a public opinion poll of likely voters showing 73 percent believe there are problems in the legal system that need to be addressed.

Opponents of limiting suits were not impressed.

"We do not believe that the numbers cited today are in fact correct or even legitimate," said Jacqui Sisto, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. "It concerns us that the most compelling evidence they have is a survey and a poll that was commissioned by the business community."

Legislation pending now would use time limits and other restrictions to clamp down on consumers' abilities to sue companies.

One provision would allow a 12-year window for product liability lawsuits against manufacturers of anything from airliners to water heaters. For instance, a homeowner who only discovered construction flaws after a hurricane that hits when the house is 15 years old could not sue the builder.

One consumer advocate said Tuesday that many people may dislike lawyers, but they are likely to support a lawsuit filed by a loved one harmed in an accident.

"If it were your child, sister, brother, dad, versus major corporations who want to limit their liability," said Monte Belote, head of the Tampa-based Florida Consumer Action Network, "the average person is always going to side with real people rather than corporations."

Tuesday's announcement was the latest shot in a decade-long battle between two powerful opponents. But the business advocates are more hopeful than ever this year. The Legislature is controlled by pro-business Republicans, and House Speaker Daniel Webster and Senate President Toni Jennings have indicated support for legislation to pass next spring.

Supporters of the change say it will be politically popular, as well.

In the report released Tuesday, 68 percent of businesses think reforming the civil justice system should be one of the Legislature's top three priorities.

According to the study, the legislation would reduce the system's average cost to Florida businesses from $655 per person to somewhere around the national average of $599. Currently, the system costs businesses about $9.4-billion in insurance premiums and liability costs, according to the report by Orlando consultant Hank Fishkind.

The measure being examined by House and Senate committees would make changes such as:

Limiting liability of property owners when someone else using their property causes an injury. Supporters say this promotes individual responsibility; opponents suggest it would do some unpopular things, such as protecting rental car companies from lawsuits, or even shielding a gun owner whose weapon is used by a child to shoot somebody.

Limiting the liability for harm done to people who are drunk or on drugs, trespassing or committing a crime. For instance, a drunk driver whose seat belt malfunctions in a car accident might find his rights curtailed.

Limiting employers' liability for the actions of their workers.