Women could sue 10 years after abortions under new Florida House bill

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, is the sponsor of HB 19, which would allow women up to 10 years after an abortion to sue their doctors. [Florida House of Representatives]
Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, is the sponsor of HB 19, which would allow women up to 10 years after an abortion to sue their doctors. [Florida House of Representatives]
Published Feb. 10, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Women who are injured or feel emotional distress for up to 10 years after an abortion could sue their doctors under a new proposal being pushed by state lawmakers.

Approved on a 10-6 vote by a House subcommittee on Thursday, the legislation (HB 19) is the first bill that could restrict a woman's access to an abortion to gain support in the state Capitol this year. And it won't be the last.

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, a lawyer in her first year in the Legislature, sponsored the bill. She says the measure will help women whose doctors don't properly obtain their informed consent by giving them as much as a decade to file suit — longer than the two years allowed under existing medical malpractice laws.

"Because of the stigma associated with the procedure in our society, sometimes women are not as willing to speak out, which would make it difficult for them to decide to do that within the two-year period," Grall said. "It's a timing issue."

She countered criticism Thursday by saying that existing medical malpractice laws are too onerous in that they require patients to discover trauma and report it within two years. Her bill gives patients 10 years to act but requires that they do so within four years of discovering physical or emotional harm.

In recent years, the Republican-controlled state Legislature has passed a series of new restrictions on abortion providers, though several have been blocked by courts and one is currently awaiting a federal judge's ruling. This year, along with HB 19, lawmakers are proposing a ban on abortions 20 weeks after a conception. Florida is following other state legislatures that have passed similar bans in the past year, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Abortion rights activists say both pieces of legislation target women and the doctors who care for them by further limiting when women can have an abortion or, in the case of HB 19, by forcing doctors to pay for extra liability insurance to protect them for years longer than physicians in other specialties.

Grall's bill and the 20-week ban are examples of lawmakers not trusting women to make their own choices, said Erin Foster of Tampa, who said she decided to have an abortion even though friends and family viewed it as "the ultimate sin." She doesn't regret it, she said.

"I would mostly regret if my representatives failed to trust more than half of their constituency, which is women, to make these decisions for themselves," Foster said.

Kimberly Diaz, lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said the organization thinks that women should be allowed to sue when doctors injure them, but that the state's existing medical malpractice laws are sufficient.

Abortion rights advocates are not the only opponents of the legislation.

Lobbyists for the insurance industry, doctors and even Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about the potential impact of letting women sue their doctors years down the road and outside of the state's medical malpractice laws.

Mark Delegal, a lobbyist who represents the Doctors Company, a medical malpractice insurance business, called the legislation "shocking" because it could conflict with existing medical malpractice laws.

Republican lawmakers said they had concerns ranging from potential conflicts with existing law to a fear that the bill would help trial lawyers. While anything that helps trial lawyers is normally at odds with GOP doctrine, it is the current profession of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

One Republican, Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa, voted with Democrats against the bill.

"The unknown potential consequences were just too much for me at this first committee stop," he said. "I need to really learn more about it, find out what the impact will be on physicians and the insurability of those physicians."

HB 19 must clear two more committees before it can be voted on by the 120-member House. Grall said she expects a similar bill to be filed in the Senate soon.

If the legislation does pass, it could be the first of its kind in the country.

Iowa state lawmakers are considering a measure this year that would allow women to file a lawsuit any time during their lives.

A 20-year-old Louisiana law lets women sue abortion doctors over "any damage," though Grall's bill differs by requiring women to prove the doctor was negligent and did not properly carry out specific requirements of the state's informed consent law.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.