Bill to limit ‘nuisance’ lawsuits against farmers moves forward in Florida House

The bill is a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, an egg farmer.
Sugar cane fields burn in the Glades on May 13, 2019. [JOHN BISOGNANO/]
Sugar cane fields burn in the Glades on May 13, 2019. [JOHN BISOGNANO/] [ JOHN BISOGNANO/PALMBEACHPOST.COM | TNS ]
Published March 18, 2021|Updated March 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson to give farmers more protection from “nuisance” lawsuits started to move forward Wednesday in the House.

Over the objections of environmentalists who contend the proposal is intended to protect the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee, the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee voted 14-4 to support a measure (House Bill 1601) that would expand Florida’s “Right to Farm” law, which was first approved in 1979 and helps shield farmers from what are known as nuisance lawsuits.

The bill would expand the law to include issues related to agritourism and “particle emissions.” It also would require people who file lawsuits to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that farms did not comply with state and federal environmental laws.

The proposal also would prohibit nuisance lawsuits from being filed by anyone owning property that is not within one-half mile of the alleged violations. It also would limit damages that could be awarded to the market value of any property damaged.

Related: Do Florida lawmakers want to make it harder to sue sugar farmers?

“Unfortunately, we have a group of people who simply believe that food comes from the grocery store. It comes from a farm,” House bill sponsor Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, said. “And we want to make sure we have protections in place to protect those workers and to protect those industries that are producing food for our state and for the rest of the country.”

Williamson added that the distance requirement is intended to “narrow” the focus to properties “directly affected by a farm.”

But critics contend by addressing “particle emissions” in the bill, the proposal is part of an effort to scuttle a federal lawsuit over the health impact of “black snow” created from the burning of sugar cane fields.

“It really is to turn the legal system on its head to protect the sugar industry from lawsuits over their practices,” said Deborah Foote of the Sierra Club Florida.

“One only need to look to the Forest Service maps that show that particles can travel up to 25 to 30 miles outside of where the actual burn is happening,” Foote said. “This will silence any future claims.”

Those concerns were echoed by some lawmakers.

“This looks like it’s two bills in one, trying to increase agritourism while also really stretching the format to the point where folks who are currently trying to stop particles coming into the air from miles away will not be able to do that,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said.

Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who is an attorney, expressed concerns about the proposed clear and convincing evidentiary standard.

“I think the intent is a noble one,” Grall said. “I think that as it’s written, the bill vastly expands the right to farm statute to provide immunity from many non-nuisance claims unless the plaintiff can prove that there’s an environmental law that was violated.”

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However, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said while the proposal might need to be “tweaked,” the agriculture industry is under assault from development.

“Over the years, I’ve seen that we have lost a lot of our agricultural production to other countries. We used to have orange juice from Florida, and now we get it from Brazil. We had table vegetables and produce from Florida, and now it comes from Mexico,” Thompson said. “There is still a lot of agricultural activity in west Orange County. At the same time, what used to be orange groves are now subdivisions. So, people are moving around the farms. And I don’t think that the farm should have to change their operations because people are now moving into those areas.”

Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, added, “if we make it too expensive and too difficult to farm, we aren’t going to have farms in Florida.”

Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, defended the part of the legislation about particle emissions as being the same as controlled burns that are used in places such as forests.

“If you lived here in the ’90s you saw most of Florida on fire for about two years over the summer. And it was incredible,” Hawkins said. “We were like what California faces year to year. And by doing the controlled burns, we are also protecting our first responders. They don’t have to go into these blazing infernos.”

A similar bill (Senate Bill 88) is up for a final vote in the Senate on Thursday,

Simpson, a Trilby Republican who owns an egg farm, said last week the bill makes “very technical changes” to help farmers getting boxed in as the state’s population grows.

“If we want to be able to maintain that agriculture, you cannot have, what I would consider as a farmer, frivolous lawsuits,” Simpson said.

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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