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Why two Parkland parents spoke out against Florida lawmakers’ tort reform bill

House Bill 837 passed the House of Representatives on Friday.
 
Court deputies exit vans that transported jurors to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Aug. 4, 2022, to view the crime scene where the 2018 shootings took place.
Court deputies exit vans that transported jurors to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Aug. 4, 2022, to view the crime scene where the 2018 shootings took place. [ AMY BETH BENNETT | South Florida Sun Sentinel ]
Published March 17, 2023|Updated March 17, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature’s sweeping efforts to protect insurance companies and businesses from lawsuits have drawn a variety of opponents: motorcycle riders, accident victims, doctors and even former President Donald J. Trump.

In the last few weeks, two parents whose daughters were murdered during 2018′s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting have spoken against it, too.

HB 837, which passed the House of Representatives on Friday, and SB 236 would overhaul the state’s legal landscape, including making it harder to sue insurance companies and limiting the amount of time someone could file a negligence lawsuit from four years to two.

The bills would also significantly change lawsuits against apartment complexes and other places accused of providing negligent security. When determining how liable such facilities are for damages, juries would have to weigh the role of the perpetrator — such as a shooter — in the incident.

The effect, in short, is that plaintiffs would likely receive less in damages from property owners and operators.

Two Parkland parents told lawmakers this week that the change was wrong.

“Agencies that allowed a killer on campus should not be able to avoid responsibility by simply pointing to the criminal,” said Damian Loughran, whose 14-year-old daughter Cara was killed during the massacre.

Related: Trump blasts DeSantis for insurance company ‘bailout’ legislation

“The criminal does not belong on the civil verdict form for a civil jury trial,” said Anthony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was also killed.

In other types of negligence lawsuits, juries in Florida aren’t required to calculate what percentage of damages that a criminal is responsible for.

Advocates say the change is needed to protect property owners and stem a rising number of lawsuits.

“Property owners and operators are not the insurers of all bad things that may happen on their property by unknown third parties,” said Laurette Balinsky, an attorney for insurance companies who also represents the Florida Retail Federation, a business group.

The Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, said about a dozen other states have similar restrictions. He cited a handful of examples of lawsuits in those states in which juries still found the premises mostly responsible for keeping people safe.

The Senate bill would also absolve property owners of responsibility for criminal acts on their properties if they adopt certain security measures, including security cameras, lighting in public spaces and deadbolts on unit doors.

Related: Florida lawmakers want to help insurance companies by limiting lawsuits

Lawmakers have been fast-tracking the bills during this year’s legislative session. On Friday, the House passed it 80-31, with one Republican joining Democrats, and the Senate could approve it next week. Gov. Ron DeSantis said he supports the legislation.

The legislation is a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who said Friday that lawmakers have tried to be fair to Floridians while eliminating “frivolous” lawsuits.

But it’s drawn a wide variety of opponents, including Trump, who on Thursday blasted DeSantis on social media for what he called a “bailout” of insurance companies and “the worst Insurance Scam in the entire Country!” Some GOP lawmakers have voted against it, too.

In committees, the Parkland parents were also joined by human trafficking victims, who said they were raped in motels and apartment complexes in Jacksonville when they were as young as 12.

“It was obvious that I was being victimized, but the people managing those properties did nothing,” said Tatiana Yoguez, 33. “With this new bill, these people would get off the hook from their responsibilities to maintain awareness and keep a safe environment.”

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