Lawsuit damage cap gets backing in Florida House


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A House panel on Wednesday approved an insurance industry-supported bill that would cap at $1 million the amount of damages for pain and suffering that can be awarded in personal-injury or wrongful-death lawsuits.

But several Republican legislators who voted for the bill in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee warned that the cap will have to be altered for them to support the measure moving forward.

Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Tampa Republican who is vice-chair of the panel, said she was uncomfortable with the cap and that she “couldn’t imagine putting a value on life.”

"I look forward to working with you on getting this changed," she said.

The Florida Supreme Court has undergone a major change during the past two months, with Gov. Ron DeSantis appointing three new justices who are expected to make the court more conservative. DeSantis’ choices have been praised by business groups that routinely refer to the state as a “judicial hellhole.”

Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, voted in favor of the bill Wednesday but cautioned proponents to stop disparaging Florida’s legal system.

“I think we have to be very, very careful with our rhetoric here,” he said, adding “the gravity of what we’re talking about here is based in the Bill of Rights.”

Other parts of the bill (HB 17) also drew concerns from lawmakers. Sponsor Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, agreed to eliminate part of the bill that would have established in law a defense that would make clear defendants couldn’t be held liable for an "unreasonable misuse" of products.

The concerns included that the proposal could have hampered the state’s legal efforts against pharmaceutical manufacturers. Shortly before she left office, former Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a lawsuit against several drug companies that she said helped contribute to the state’s opioid crisis. Leek said he agreed to delete that section of the bill to avoid any confusion.

But along with the cap on pain-and-suffering damages, the insurance industry came out of Wednesday’s meeting with a victory as the bill would eliminate what are known as “phantom” health-care costs and “letters of protection.”

“Phantom” costs are the difference between what health-care providers bill for services and what they agree to accept for payment. Letters of protection are issued by law firms and can contain “phantom” costs.

The issue is important because juries often use those costs as a multiplier to determine other costs, such as plaintiffs’ future pain-and-suffering damages and loss of future earning capacity. If medical costs are inflated, damages also could increase.

An attorney for Publix Super Markets told lawmakers last month that letters of protection are an increasing problem and are a reason why it costs the company 65 percent more to settle claims litigated in Florida than in any of the other states where the chain operates.

To help Publix, among others, the bill would prevent juries from seeing “phantom” costs by placing into law strict guidelines of how bills for medical costs should be calculated. In instances of letters of protection, the bill would limit charges to Medicare rates paid to doctors and hospitals.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys opposed such provisions.

West Palm Beach attorney Leslie Kroeger said some physicians refuse to treat patients who are injured in automobile accidents and that the only way for those drivers to receive care is by having a letter of protection.

Kroeger, a member of the Florida Justice Association, said her clients were the equivalent of David and insurance companies were Goliath.

But Bill Herrle, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, said Kroeger miscast the characters.

“The trial lawyers want to cast this as David and Goliath -- them versus the huge insurance companies,” Herrle said. “HB 17 is very much a bill with small business owners in mind, and believe me, when they are between a trial lawyer and an insurance company -- they’re David.”