Controversial local lawsuits bill sponsored by St. Augustine lawmaker to see changes

The shark finning proposal (SB 680) would expand a 2017 law that increased penalties for people who remove fins from sharks and discard the rest of the sharks into the ocean. The new proposal, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, would ban the import, export and sale of shark fins, an idea that has not passed in past sessions. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A controversial measure that could lead to businesses filing lawsuits against cities and counties likely will be revamped Thursday when it goes before the Florida Senate.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who is sponsoring the measure (SB 620), filed a series of proposed changes late Tuesday that include adding ways local governments could be shielded from lawsuits and scaling back part of the bill dealing with attorney fees.

The bill, which has backing from Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, sped through Senate committees and will be taken up by the full Senate on Thursday. It would allow businesses to file lawsuits against local governments if ordinances cause at least 15 percent losses of profits.

Local governments have opposed the bill, raising concerns about potential costs and being hamstrung from passing ordinances to address problems. As an example, Rebecca O’Hara, senior legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, said during a committee meeting last week that that if the bill was in place 20 years ago, local governments would have not been able to address the explosion of “pill mills” because of potential lawsuits.

In a statement Wednesday about the proposed changes, Hutson referred to the Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties and said, “We have heard your concerns, worked to address them, and the bill is a reflection of that combined effort. We have also heard the concerns of the private sector job creators who run the local businesses that fuel our communities.”

“There are huge consequences for businesses when local government changes the rules in the middle of the game, and this bill creates a fair process by which a long-standing business owner whose business has been drastically impacted by a local ordinance can seek an appropriate remedy,” Hutson said.

The bill would apply to businesses that have been in operation for at least three years. It would allow them to sue cities and counties for business damages if ordinances cause the lost profits.

Hutson’s proposed changes would address several issues in the bill.

For instance, the bill lists circumstances in which local governments could not be held liable, such as if ordinances are needed to comply with state or federal laws or are related to the Florida Building Code or Florida Fire Prevention Code. The proposed amendment would expand that list to include ordinances related to procurement or promoting economic competition.

Also, the proposed changes would allow local governments to avoid liability by granting waivers from ordinances to businesses seeking damages.

In addition, Hutson’s amendment would limit business damages to lost profits for seven years or the number of years the businesses have been in operation, whichever is less. Also, it would change parts of the bill dealing with attorney fees that local governments could be forced to pay.

The bill, in part, called for setting up a formula for amounts that cities and counties would have to pay if they lose lawsuits. But the proposed amendment would eliminate the formula and say that judges “may award reasonable attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party.”

A House version of the bill (HB 569) is pending in committees.

About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.