TALLAHASSEE — Investors in nursing homes in Florida would be shielded from lawsuits when residents are abused or neglected under broad new provisions authorized in a bill the Florida House sent to the governor on Wednesday.
SB 670 was approved 109-7 after passing in the Senate last week. The measure has the backing of the Florida Justice Association, the association representing trial lawyers, and AARP of Florida. But it was vigorously opposed by elder advocates and Tampa-based trial lawyer Jim Wilkes, who has successfully sued dozens of nursing homes that have attempted to shield their assets.
The National Organization for Women Florida Chapter and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, and union groups representing the health care workers in nursing homes, are among the groups that warned the measure will hurt residents of nursing homes and subject staff members to lawsuits while owners are shielded.
"The Florida Legislature just handed the nursing home industry a 'get of jail free card' in cases of abuse or neglect,'' said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit that advocates for senior rights and is heavily funded by Wilkes. "If enacted, the nefarious operators, those who cut staffing and care budgets just to maximize profits, will be exonerated from all wrongdoing."
He predicted that nursing homes will take advantage of this new shield on liability and warned that "care that's bad now is about to get whole lot worse."
The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, would stop Wilkes' strategy in Florida by preventing "passive investors" from being named in a lawsuit unless a court determines they have had an active role.
Wilkes contends the bill is written too broadly to describe who is considered a passive investor and restricts discovery in such a way that it will make it more difficult to convince a judge that there is a link between the investor and the nursing home.
"This doesn't make it any easier or harder to get sued as a direct care giver. This is simply protection for the passive investor,'' said J. Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.
Wilkes believes trial lawyers will file more frequent lawsuits that produce smaller settlements, while the industry gets a stronger shield against reporting how it spends its money. The Florida Justice Association denies that is its goal.
The nursing home industry spent $2.4 million on political campaigns in 2012 and has contributed another $903,000 on legislative campaigns this cycle. The Wilkes and McHugh law firm, by contrast, has given $18,000 this election cycle to legislative campaigns.
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In a statement, Reed urged the governor to sign the bill quickly because it would take effect upon becoming law.
"Gov. Scott understands how excessive litigation can destroy investors' interest in creating new facilities and new jobs in Florida's vital nursing home industry,'' he said.