The Legislature is considering a bill that it hopes will create a more business friendly environment in the state. Unfortunately, lawmakers’ misguided efforts will end up swamping municipalities with lawsuits. And as a result, it will have a disastrous impact on the taxpayers of smaller cities like Seminole.
The “business damages” legislation — SB 620/HB 569 — would, in effect, create a new tort in the state, allowing businesses to sue municipalities that may harm their profitability in any way. At first blush, that may seem pro-business. But at its core, the legislation is actually anti-taxpayer. That’s because taxpayers will be on the hook to defend against the flood of lawsuits.
Tort is costly and creates a bad business climate for one simple reason — filing lawsuits is cheap and defending against them is costly. This sets up an incentive for unscrupulous actors to file as many claims as possible, fishing for quick settlements. Florida TaxWatch, the state’s right-of-center taxpayer watchdog, has been quick to raise its concern, warning that “the provisions provide an incentive to allege damages and businesses losses which makes local governments more vulnerable to financially motivated and malicious lawsuits filed with the intent of securing a cash settlement.”
Not that long ago, tort reform was a major priority of Republicans in Tallahassee. As a freshman Republican legislator, I was proud to vote in favor of Gov. Jeb Bush’s tort reform legislative package. It helped to clean up the cottage industry of frivolous lawsuits that were clogging our court systems and plaguing job creators in the state. Those lessons appear to have been forgotten as the Legislature seems intent to reopen the floodgates, and this time, taxpayers will be on the hook to defend against “sue and settle” claims.
The hyper-litigious environment will hogtie municipalities from carrying out their most important duties, but also its most routine. The scenarios are not that difficult to imagine.
For instance, if this law had been in effect at the height of the pill mill phenomena in our state (which fueled the national opioid epidemic), municipalities would have to choose between allowing pill mills to operate or paying pill mills for damages and lost revenue by shutting them dow. Ditto for curbing the hours of operation of strip clubs, liquors stores, etc.
Ordinances concerning public health, traffic, resiliency and noise would all open municipalities up to lawsuits, putting cities in a position of risking broad legal exposure — and big payouts at every turn. This burden will fall the heaviest on smaller cities like Seminole. Cities like ours don’t have huge budgets or big legal departments.
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While the potential negative impacts are not hard to imagine, it’s impossible to know what all the unintended consequences of this legislation would be. That’s because no version of this legislative proposal is currently in law anywhere in the entire country. And, for good reason, it’s a bad idea.
Tallahassee lawmakers need to protect Florida’s taxpayers and vote down this ill-conceived legislation: Creating a pro-business environment is a noble goal but this is not the way to do it.
Leslie Waters has served as mayor of Seminole since 2013. She served as a state representative for eight years, and served as Speaker Pro-Tempore of the Florida House in her final term.