COVID-19 business protections clear first hurdle

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A House panel on Wednesday night voted along party lines to back a proposal that would provide broad immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits to businesses that have “substantially” complied with public-health guidelines.

The House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee voted 11-6 to advance the proposal (HB 7), with state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis in attendance championing the measure.

Patronis, whose family has long owned a Panama City Beach restaurant, testified at the meeting and called the bill monumental.

“We want to make sure we are doing right and that our small businesses are not under threat of  constant lawsuits,” Patronis said.

Bill sponsor Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, said “fewer than 10” lawsuits have been filed against business owners related to COVID-19. However, he said the fear of litigation associated with a 1-in-100-year pandemic is real.

“I want to be clear, this bill is intended to give clarity to Florida businesses that if they are making a good-faith effort to comply with regulation, they will not have the cloud of frivolous litigation hanging over their head,” McClure said.

The bill, which needs approval from two more House panels before it could go to the full House, would provide businesses, schools and churches protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits for damages, injuries or death. The bill also would make it harder to win lawsuits, raising the bar of proof from simple negligence to gross negligence and upping evidentiary standards from the current “greater weight of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”

The bill does not contain lawsuit protections for doctors, hospitals or nursing homes, some of the first groups to call for such protections in the early weeks of the pandemic and an economic shutdown. The House Health & Human Services Committee will discuss protections for health-care providers Thursday.

With the annual legislative session poised to start March 2, House and Senate Republican leaders have signaled support for the measure that cleared the Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee on Wednesday.

Members of the panel waded through a number of proposed amendments, including one filed by Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville, that would have required businesses to comply with guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to qualify for the protections.

Currently, the legislation provides protections for businesses that make a “good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance at the time the cause of action accrued.” Additionally, Hinson’s amendment would have instituted a statewide mask mandate. She ultimately withdrew the amendment.

The other proposed amendments were offered by Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is an attorney. Diamond offered two amendments that would have addressed a presuit requirement in the bill that physicians sign affidavits attesting that plaintiffs’ COVID-19-related damages or injuries occurred as a result of defendants’ acts or omissions.

“I think that idea, candidly, jeopardizes the bill,” Diamond said.

The committee shot down the two amendments by Diamond, including one that would have deleted the provision from the bill.

Diamond also withdrew a proposed amendment that would have precluded employers from retaliating against COVID-19-positive employees who don’t report to work because they are quarantining or isolating. Diamond called the withdrawn amendment “a first attempt at this issue” of providing greater protections to employees.

Noting that Florida has had more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 and that more than 23,000 residents have died since last year, Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, questioned why the panel wasn’t focusing its efforts on mitigation efforts.

“This bill does nothing to stop or to prevent the spread of COVID cases,” Slosberg said. “We are giving almost blanket immunity to businesses. Rather than eliminating plaintiffs’ rights to access the court, I ask that we focus on immediate threats facing our state.”


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