Dems, trial lawyers fight against protecting businesses from COVID lawsuits, but GOP bill heads to House floor

By: - February 16, 2021 7:36 pm
Florida Capitol

The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

One Democrat said the legislation creates “blanket immunity.”

Another, Dianne Hart of Hillsborough County, called the bill “well-intentioned” but not a “good bill.”

The legislation in question is about protecting businesses against COVID lawsuits, and it will likely become one of the most contentious bills in the 2021 legislative session, pitting Republicans against Democrats and the business lobby against the trial lawyers.

The bill is already fast-tracked, and it’s already headed for the full House for a vote.

The Judiciary Committee voted, 14-7, along party lines. For a brief rundown about the bill, see this Phoenix story published earlier today.

First, the committee adopted a series of amendments favoring business owners.

Jacksonville trial attorney Curry Pajcic — one of the representatives of trial attorneys, unions, and social welfare groups that faced off with business interests over the bill — argued that one of the amendments would allow businesses to follow the least restrictive guidelines, or “chose the lowest and the least.”

Democrat Michael Grieco of Miami-Dade said he was prepared to favor the bill until that amendment passed.

“It essentially creates blanket immunity. It is arbitrary. It doesn’t cite the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. It doesn’t cite the WHO [World Health Organization]. It could be an authoritative source such as one person that can be just plucked out and utilized as the basis for whatever standards the business is applying,” he said.

Protocols require amendments to be filed the evening before a committee hearing, so that interested parties have time to review them while restricted from the Capitol to reduce the chance of COVID transmission.

Democrat Ramon Alexander, representing Gadsden and part of Leon County, noted that his party members were trying to respond to amendments that bill sponsor Lawrence McClure filed practically at the 6 p.m. deadline.

“If we can’t have a discussion and a vote on an amendment, what’s the purpose of having a Legislature or being a member of the Legislature in the first place?” he asked.

Other Democrats stressed that they wanted to help businesses but feared the bill would close access to jury trials to people with legitimate claims.

“The bill is many things,” said Hart. “It is noble-spirited. It is well intentioned. But what it is not is a good bill.”

Republican Cord Byrd, representing Nassau and part of Duval counties, acknowledged that, even under existing law, “it would be impossible to prove one of these cases … because we have a disease which you can’t taste it, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it.”

That won’t stop unscrupulous trial attorneys from making unreasonable claims in search of quick settlements, he continued.

Byrd also contended, “there’s a very good argument that the WHO was bought and paid for by the Chinese Community Party, so we can’t really rely on them,” and that the CDC “has been all over the place. I think it’s been impossible for businesses to follow the guidelines because it’s been an ever-shifting target throughout this entire thing.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.