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Tort reform bill's final draft is for committee eyes only

A new law to block consumers from suing some businesses for negligence may squeak through the Florida Legislature as early as today.

But while key players predict the vote may come down to three or four undecided senators, some lawmakers may have trouble reading the legislation.

A draft of the bill was printed and sent to members of a joint committee of legislators who have spent weeks debating the issue, but it was kept secret under direct orders from the panel's chairman, state Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton.

"This is not a public document at this time," McKay wrote in a memo to members of the committee. "Please do not allow anyone else to read. Return the document to me as soon as you can. A final document will be given to you and the public once all the preliminary reviews have been completed." Under Florida's open-records laws, proposed legislation should be open to the public.

McKay denied trying to keep the 47-page bill a secret but said he asked his colleagues to keep the final report quiet to avoid last-minute attempts by lobbyists and lawmakers to change it.

Asked if his memo's directive asked lawmakers to violate the open-records laws, McKay said: "I couldn't tell you if my life depended on it."

But opponents of the legislation said McKay's memo illustrates legislators' efforts to keep consumers in the dark.

"These conference negotiations have been a joke," said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, the main group opposing the legislation.

"This is another attempt to hide from the public the real impact of this legislation," he said.

The package, strongly supported by leading Republicans in the Legislature and a coalition of business groups, would protect businesses by softening the power of plaintiffs in negligence lawsuits.

Some GOP lawmakers have been saying that the measure would pass easily as payback for campaign contributions from the business community that helped them gain control of the Legislature two years ago. Still, things looked tight in the Senate by late Wednesday.

Senate Democratic leader Buddy Dyer of Orlando said he had counted 18 senators planning to vote against the legislation, two votes shy of killing it.

But even the measure's strongest supporters admitted Gov. Lawton Chiles may not sign it into law if it passes the Legislature.

"The governor's office has reservations about the bill," McKay said. "It would probably be correct to say they are not advocates of litigation reform."

The legislation would limit lawsuits by:

Protecting rental car companies from lawsuits in certain cases when renters cause accidents that injure other people.

Limiting liability for a defendant who is responsible for a small portion of the negligence.

Capping punitive damages that a consumer could win in court.

Prohibiting claims against products 12 years after the products are delivered to the consumer.