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Florida court clerks slammed by cases just before new lawsuit rules approved

The new law designed to curb the number of some types of lawsuits resulted in a last-minute rush, crippling clerks offices in recent days.
 
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 837 on Friday, a law aimed at decreasing the number of frivolous lawsuits involving insurance and personal injury claims. In anticipation of the approval, litigants flooded local clerks of court with new civil claims in the days leading up to the approval.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 837 on Friday, a law aimed at decreasing the number of frivolous lawsuits involving insurance and personal injury claims. In anticipation of the approval, litigants flooded local clerks of court with new civil claims in the days leading up to the approval. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 27, 2023|Updated March 31, 2023

Legislation designed to curb the number of lawsuits filed has had exactly the opposite effect on Florida’s clerks of the court who, in the days leading up to the signing by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday, saw massive increases in civil filings.

“I have a phone connection with my other fellow big clerks, and we’re all seeing a tsunami of cases that were filed,” said Ken Burke, clerk of the circuit court and comptroller for Pinellas County.

In Pinellas, the number of auto negligence cases alone filed the week between March 17 through last Thursday was 2,085 compared with just 50 during a similar Friday to Thursday a year ago.

The same was true for negligence at a commercial establishment, increasing from just six to 355 during that period.

The spark was ignited by the passage of House Bill 837, a sweeping overhaul of the state’s legal landscape passed by lawmakers last week.

The bill was the culmination of decades of efforts by insurance companies to make it harder and more expensive to sue them in Florida. Republican lawmakers had already granted property insurance companies similar protections, claiming that litigation was driving up the cost of homeowners insurance.

The new legislation extended those changes to other lines of insurance, such as auto, health, life and liability. Among other things, the legislation:

  • Limited the amount of time to file a lawsuit from four years to two.
  • Required the policyholder to pay their own attorneys’ fees in lawsuits against insurers, overturning 130-year-old law.
  • Limited how much someone could collect in medical expenses in negligence lawsuits.
  • Required juries in lawsuits against apartment complexes and other places over lax security to weigh the role of criminals — such as the Parkland shooter — when determining the level of negligence.

The changes, which were rushed through the Legislature, even caused some Republican lawmakers to balk. Four GOP senators sided with most Democrats in voting against it last week. Former President Donald Trump called it a “bailout” for insurance companies and blasted DeSantis for supporting it.

“They wanted to rush this into law. Ask yourself why,” said attorney Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers.

Instead of taking effect on July 1, like many bills, it took effect when DeSantis signed it Friday morning.

The fast turnaround caused lawyers around the state to try to beat the deadline. The vast majority of the lawsuits would have been settled out of court and never filed if the legislation was not enacted, Pajcic said.

Over three days last week, the law firm Morgan & Morgan filed 23,000 cases, 3,000 more than it filed in all of 2022, attorney John Morgan said.

Attorneys had a responsibility to their clients to file the cases, since their clients stood to lose money and time under the new legislation, Morgan said.

“It’s like someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Drive,’” Morgan said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

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The Florida Defense Lawyers Association, which lobbied in support of the legislation, asked the Florida Supreme Court last week to issue an emergency order allowing defendants more time to respond to complaints. Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz is discussing the issue with judges across the state, a court spokesperson said.

Options could include encouraging the parties to resolve the cases in arbitration or mediation, said Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta.

“It’s going to be a huge, huge undertaking,” Ficarrotta said. “We don’t want to short-change anybody, but the bottom line is there’s only so many hours in a day.”

The surge in cases hit county court clerks who were already seeking more state funding, said Carolyn Timmann, Martin County clerk of courts and comptroller.

“It was like having a couple of years of litigation all filed in one weekend,” said Timmann, who as president of the state clerk’s association was driving to Tallahassee on Monday to find solutions to the caseloads.

That wave hit Pinellas hardest between March 17, a week before DeSantis signed the legislation, and last Thursday, Burke said. His biggest concern for now is making sure that more time-sensitive civil cases, such as eviction suits, don’t get lost in the flood. Many attorneys “are filing these cases just to make sure they’re tried under the old rules,” Burke said, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go to trial.

Hillsborough Clerk of the Court & Comptroller Cindy Stuart reported a nearly 500% increase in civil court case filings in March compared to a typical month. County court filings jumped from 8,374 in February to 42,364 in March. In circuit court, the civil filings increased from 838 in February to 9,610 in March.

In Pasco County, last week’s civil filings reached 2,396, an 884% increase over the same week last month, which had 271.

“We are working overtime and reassigning teammates to help process the tremendous increase in civil filings,” said Pasco Clerk and Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles. “We do not have the funding nor the manpower to maintain such an increase in our caseload.”

For a clerk’s office that sees an average of 12 cases a day, Alvarez-Sowles said 828 cases were filed on March 21 alone.

Defense lawyers might find little help from the attorneys filing the lawsuits. In response to the new legislation, the Morgan & Morgan law firm adopted a new “red line” policy to make life difficult for defense lawyers by no longer agreeing to their requests for continuances or deadline extensions.

“We may want to help the human being defense attorney because we know them and maybe like them, but we will not because they work for an enemy who is heartless and ruthless,” Morgan’s son, Matt Morgan, and Chief Operating Officer Reuven Moskowitz wrote in a Thursday email to the firm’s personal injury lawyers and paralegals. “The enemy who just tried to kill us in FL.”