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Limits on consumer lawsuits easily approved

Capping a bitter, years-long battle, the Florida Legislature approved a sweeping plan to block many consumers from suing businesses for negligence.

Business lobbyists watching the final vote Thursday in the Capitol applauded while their rivals, representing the state's trial lawyers, solemnly warned that average Floridians were in trouble should they be injured because of someone else's negligence.

"It's a little frustrating," said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. "Legislators have been taking care of big business, not the little guy."

Despite predictions that the vote in the Senate would be razor-thin, with many senators undecided as early as Thursday morning, the chamber approved the compromise measure 24-16 after an emotional debate. The more conservative state House, where the vote was never in doubt, passed the proposal 70-46.

Now the measure goes to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, a lawyer who has expressed concerns about the bill. He has not, however, mentioned the word "veto."

"I haven't seen the final thing, but I had a lot of concerns going in and I don't think they got fixed in the conference report," Chiles said during a Capitol news conference Thursday. "Somebody has to pay (when a consumer gets injured). I want to look at that."

Republican leaders and other supporters said the legislation would boost economic development in Florida by protecting industries and small businesses from frivolous lawsuits. Supporters often refer to the infamous McDonald's case, in which a customer who spilled hot coffee sued the restaurant after being burned.

In general, the legislation limits liability for rental car companies if a renter hurts another person in an accident; prohibits awards if the equipment that caused an injury is more than 12 years old; limits liability for people or businesses who are ruled just partly responsible for an injury; and sets caps on punitive damages that consumers can be awarded.

The issue was one of the most hotly contested during this year's legislative session, which is scheduled to end today. Business advocates, tired from months of lobbying, were relieved. But they warned that a Chiles veto would bring them back to try again in 1999 _ perhaps with GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush living in the Governor's Mansion.

"If he vetoes the bill, we will be back next year with more fervor," said Lee Hinkle, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Lawmakers began debating the issue last year, but sent it to the throng of powerful lobbyists representing big businesses and trial lawyers to seek a compromise. The two groups never reached agreements on much of the plan, and eventually the final deals were cut between members of a joint House-Senate committee over the past few weeks.

Both sides have reached into their deep pockets to barrage voters with misleading television and radio advertisements. The trial lawyers directly targeted several House members with negative ads suggesting the lawsuit limits would hurt average people. The business coalition, funded by groups such as Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce and pushed by leading state House Republicans, tried to convince voters that frivolous lawsuits were clogging the court system.

Both sides, well-known for generous campaign contributions, said Thursday's final action by lawmakers set the stage for members' re-election campaigns this year.

The trial lawyers pledged to fight anybody who voted for the plan.

"We're committed to letting voters know which legislators turned their backs on consumers," said Carruthers, of the trial lawyers' group.