Florida business groups brainstorm ideas to reduce lawsuits and legal damages
After property insurers got long-sought legal changes in a December special legislative session, business groups see an opportunity to curb litigation in other areas such as auto insurance.
With this year’s regular legislative session starting March 7, Associated Industries of Florida brought together lawmakers, lobbyists and representatives of business groups to discuss a series of ideas for reducing lawsuits and legal damages.
Brewster Bevis, president and CEO of Associated Industries, said this is the “right time to really put together a good tort-reform package.” In part, businesses are buoyed by expected support from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner after the property-insurance changes in December.
“We really have a perfect situation and a lot of wind at our backs to get really meaningful tort reform done,” Bevis said during the event at a conference center at Florida State University.
Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said he expects to see legislation and called Passidomo, R-Naples, a “champion of tort reform.” Perhaps the biggest legislative shift, however, has happened in the House, where Renner, R-Palm Coast, in November succeeded former Speaker Chris Sprowls, who was widely viewed as friendly to plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Tort reform, a phrase often shorthand for trying to limit legal damages, is one of the eternal issues in the Legislature and extends to a wide variety of subjects such as property insurance, auto insurance, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation insurance.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys fiercely fight against limits, arguing that they will hurt consumers and patients. But business groups contend that “frivolous” lawsuits drive up costs and are often spurred by attorneys seeking fees.
With Florida’s property-insurance market facing major financial troubles, the Republican-controlled Legislature made numerous changes in December, including eliminating what are known as “one-way” attorney fees in lawsuits against property insurers. One-way attorney fees require insurers to pay the attorney fees of policyholders who successfully file lawsuits.
Also, lawmakers barred a controversial practice known as “assignment of benefits” for property-insurance claims. Assignment of benefits, or AOB, involves policyholders signing over claims to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers. The insurance industry has long argued that AOB leads to more litigation.
Among the ideas discussed during Monday’s event were trying to extend such changes to other lines of insurance, including auto insurance. That could involve trying to eliminate one-way attorney fees in personal-injury protection, or PIP, lawsuits after auto accidents.
Also, insurance lobbyists pointed to an effort to prevent assignment of benefits — and subsequent lawsuits — over windshield-damage claims.
Speakers during Monday’s event came from a broad swath of business groups, companies and legal and lobbying firms, including the Florida Insurance Council, the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, the Florida Senior Living Association, the Florida Hospital Association, the Florida Trucking Association, the Florida Justice Reform Institute, the National Federation of Independent Business and FCCI Insurance Group. A panel on workers’ compensation insurance included former state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier.
Numerous issues were discussed, including possibly changing laws related to “bad faith” cases against insurers; preventing adult children from seeking pain-and-suffering damages in lawsuits against nursing homes and assisted-living facilities when residents die; and changing premises-liability laws related to apartment complexes and businesses.
Also, speakers discussed trying to put restrictions on an industry that, at least in part, provides money to plaintiffs in lawsuits and then receives a cut of settlements.
Rep. Toby Overdorf, a Palm City Republican who led a panel discussion, said he hopes to “chip away” at the financing issue. Tallahassee attorney Jason Gonzalez also said the Florida Supreme Court could set procedural rules that would affect the practices.