Florida Senate passes bill to shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits

It now heads to the House, where its passage is likely.
Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored the bill that would make it harder for Floridians to sue businesses, governments and health care companies for COVID-19-related claims.
Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored the bill that would make it harder for Floridians to sue businesses, governments and health care companies for COVID-19-related claims.
Published March 18, 2021|Updated March 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Thursday passed a sweeping measure that would make it harder to sue businesses, governments and health care companies for COVID-19-related claims.

Senators voted 24-15 to send the bill out of the Senate and to the House, where its passage is all but assured, likely making it the Legislature’s first substantial response to the coronavirus pandemic of the 2021 legislative session.

Supporters of the bill, which was championed by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, said Thursday it would restore the confidence of companies and health care providers as Florida gets back to normal.

“This is essential for us to get on from the post-COVID era,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.

Detractors argued it’s a giveaway to businesses that’s thinly disguised as a pandemic response.

The bill would make plaintiffs provide “clear and convincing evidence” that a business, government, school or religious institution acted with “gross negligence” relating to COVID-19.

Under the bill:

  • Anyone filing a lawsuit would be required to include an affidavit from a physician who can attest “within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the plaintiff’s COVID-19-related damages, injury, or death occurred as a result of the defendant’s acts or omissions.”
  • Those businesses, governments and other groups would be immune from COVID-19-related lawsuits if a judge determines the defendants made “a good faith effort to substantially comply” with government health guidance at the time of an alleged problem.
  • If a judge determines the defendant did not act in good faith, the case can proceed, but the standard for winning it is higher. Instead of showing a “preponderance of evidence” to make their case, the plaintiff must prove gross negligence by “clear and convincing evidence.”

Prior to the bill passing, Republican lawmakers repeatedly rejected amendments proposed by Democrats, including one that would not protect nursing homes with a history of citations for deficiencies.

“We’re talking about bad apples,” said Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, an attorney. “Why are we protecting those bad apples? Why aren’t the good apples okay with keeping the current law?”

Although relatively few COVID-19-related lawsuits have been filed, the measure was a top priority of the Chamber of Commerce and similar groups, which seek each session to limit the circumstances under which companies can be sued.

“The bill provides much-needed certainty to job creators that, if they are doing their part to keep employees, customers and patients safe, they will not be party to frivolous litigation,” Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson said in a statement.

The bills making their way through the House do not apply to cases filed before the legislation would become law.

The legislation is moving so quickly that at least one family has decided to file its COVID-19 related suit before the rules change.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Felice Vinarub and Howard Schleider said their mother’s Delray Beach memory care facility, Grand Villa of Delray East, mismanaged a COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, they say, their mother, Sara Schleider, contracted coronavirus and died in June 2020.

Before the pandemic, Sara Schleider was in relatively good health despite eroding mental faculties. On her best days, she liked to play mahjong and canasta, and she liked going on cruises and reading “trashy” books, Felice Vinarub said.

Grand Villa of Delray East has said it’s reviewing the allegations in the lawsuit.

The Schleiders’ attorney, Spencer Kuvin, of Craig Goldenfarb, P.A., said the bill the Senate just passed would make it harder for families to have their day in court against reckless corporate actors.

”The thought behind legislation to protect good caregivers is a good idea,” Kuvin said. “But unfortunately, the way it’s drafted and the breadth of it is going to protect bad facilities.”

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has argued the bill leaves room for legitimate claims to hold the worst offenders accountable.

The House has been debating two separate measures which, when taken together, are similar to the bill passed Thursday. A bill protecting businesses, HB 7, has already passed the lower chamber.

Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls called the Senate bill a “great product,” and said Thursday he plans to take up the Senate version as soon as possible.

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