Sweeping legal reforms passed by Florida Legislature, dividing Republicans

House Bill 837 will make it harder and more expensive to sue insurance companies.
“People believe they’ve won the jackpot with the litigation lottery,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “We have a problem in Florida. Help me fix it.”
“People believe they’ve won the jackpot with the litigation lottery,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “We have a problem in Florida. Help me fix it.” [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published March 23|Updated March 24

TALLAHASSEE — No legislation this session has scrambled party loyalties like HB 837, a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s legal landscape that will make it harder, and more expensive, to sue insurance companies.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the bill with four Republicans voting against it, a rare split that still sends the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Three other Republican senators have flip-flopped on the bill — voting against it in committees, then for it on the Senate floor. One Democratic senator voted for it, splitting from her party.

The consternation stems from the broad sweep of the bill — and the fact that Floridians pay the highest auto and homeowners insurance rates in the nation.

DeSantis and top Republican leaders say the legislation is necessary to curb the high number of lawsuits, which will in turn drive down rates. DeSantis moved quickly, signing the bill into law during a quiet ceremony in Tallahassee on Friday.

“People believe they’ve won the jackpot with the litigation lottery,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “We have a problem in Florida. Help me fix it.”

But they have little evidence that lawsuits are harming the state’s economy. One of the key changes literally can’t lead to lower rates. And lawmakers have already worked to curb litigation against property insurance companies, yet rates continue to rise.

Some Republican senators have been concerned that the bill tilts the scales too far in favor of insurance companies. Former President Donald Trump called it a “bailout” for insurance companies.

“If this becomes law, ordinary Floridians, small businesses, trucking companies, mom and pop shops, will be left holding the bag for judgments and lawsuits their insurance companies were supposed to prevent,” Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, who is herself a trial lawyer, said Wednesday.

Parkland parents against bill

Lawmakers were also moved by testimony from the hundreds of different people and interest groups who testified in committees: accident victims, Parkland parents, tattooed bikers and doctors.

The legislation has a broad sweep that affects all kinds of litigation, but the main provisions would:

  • Do away with the state’s roughly 130-year-old law requiring insurance companies to pay the policyholder’s attorney’s fees if the policyholder sues and wins in court. The provision was meant to level the playing field between policyholders and insurance companies
  • Limit how much someone could collect in medical expenses in negligence lawsuits.
  • Require 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.

Parkland parents and victims of shootings at apartment complexes said that the bill would let property owners off the hook for providing shoddy security, testimony that moved some lawmakers.

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

“These victims traveled the state and begged us not to allow places where we visit and we live become less safe,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who voted against the bill.

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Two Republican senators who own small businesses, including Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-St. Petersburg, worried over another provision that would allow liability insurers to escape being sued for “bad faith.”

The provision could open businesses up to million-dollar judgments if their insurance companies don’t quickly settle a case. That’s what happened when the local owner of several Tampa Bay Pinch A Penny pool supply stores was sued after an employee at one of its franchised locations drove a company truck while drunk and crashed on Bayshore Boulevard, killing a pedestrian.

The company’s liability carrier never made an offer to the victim’s family, which caused the family to sue, according to the company. The company is now suing the carrier, saying it acted in “bad faith” by not quickly paying the victim’s family.

The bad-faith provision prompted DiCeglie to vote against the bill in committee. After it was amended slightly, he voted for it on the Senate floor.

“I’m still a little bit concerned, but I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

That provision can’t lead to lower rates. Under state law, insurance companies are forbidden from passing the costs of “bad-faith” lawsuits on to customers.

Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, also voted against the bill in committee.

“I have been listening to my constituents,” Wright said last week. “You have 150 ‘noes’ and three ‘yeses,’ so they voted me in, and I will be down on this bill.”

On the Senate floor, however, Wright voted for it.

“Some of them have changed their mind,” Wright said of his constituents.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law.

Correction: An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information about which chamber Sen. Nick DiCeglie voted in. He voted for the bill on the Senate floor.

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