FL lawmakers push to limit liability for COVID infections traceable to businesses, schools, churches

Drive-through coronavirus screening sites continue to pop up around Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Legislation to protect businesses, schools, government entities and religious institutions from legal liability for exposing people to COVID-19 cleared its first committee hearing in the Florida House on Wednesday evening.

The measure (HB 7) would do so by erecting barriers for taking businesses or other entities to court.

First, anyone who wants to sue — say, a business — would have to get a doctor to sign an affadavit “which attests to the physician’s belief, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the plaintiff’s COVID-19-related damages, injury, or death occurred as a result of the defendant’s acts or omissions.”

Next, a judge would have to determine whether the  business “made 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,” the bill says.

“During this stage of the proceeding, admissible evidence is limited to evidence tending to demonstrate whether the defendant made such a good faith effort. If the court determines that the defendant made such a good faith effort, the defendant is immune from civil liability.”

Similar legislation is pending in the Senate, and a separate bill would address liability for medical institutions.

During a two-hour hearing before the Subcommittee on Civil Justice and Property rights, an array of business owners and lobby groups lined up to support the measure by Lawrence McClure, a Republican from Hillsborough County.

So did Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who has been a vocal supporter of the effort.

They argued that businesses need relief from “sue to settle” threats — when attorneys send demand letters as a precursor to a lawsuit to force potential defendants to settle without ever going to court.

It was unclear how big that problem is. William Large of the Florida Justice Reform Institute said he had identified 53 COVID-liability lawsuits statewide, but that that was based on an incomplete survey of the trial court dockets.

McClure argued the number will surely grow.

“I’m not concerned about what the caseload is today. I’m worried about the caseload tomorrow, and the businesses community of Florida having assurances that if they’re operating in good faith, that they are doing their level best to provide a safe, clean, healthy, business and workplace that they shouldn’t have to live under the cloud of a frivolous suit,” McClure said.

Critics questioned whether doctors would be willing to swear under oath that a patient became infected at one particular business, school, or church. They also protested the high evidentiary burden the bill would impose on plaintiffs.

And Rich Templin, of the Florida AFL-CIO, warned that the measure could discourage employers from engaging in collective bargaining over workplace safety.

“This bill does nothing to stop or to prevent the spread of COVID,” said Emily Slosberg, a Democrat from Delray Beach.

“We’re giving almost blanket immunity to businesses,” she said. “Rather than offering this immunity to businesses, I ask that we work together to prevent our communities from heading in the direction of California, where refrigerated trucks currently serve as makeshift morgues in parking lots because actual morgues are overrun beyond capacity.”

Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said small business owners in her district aren’t asking for liability protection, but rather for relief on rent, mortgages, and taxes; bridge loans; and business interruption insurance coverage.

“There are other prioritizations that we need to focus on or at the very least integrate into this bill to make it a package that is actually a winning issue for both the worker and the small business,” she said.

North Point Republican James Buchanan countered: “We could lose an entire generation of entrepreneurs here if we don’t provide some certainty.”