Workers, activists organizing in hopes of blocking legislation that would make it harder to file COVID-exposure lawsuits

The scene inside the Florida House chamber as the 2020 session drew to a close. Source: Florida House

Progressive organizations are trying to step up the pressure against fast-track legislation that would make it harder to sue businesses and health-care providers accused of exposing employees, customers, and patients to COVID-19.

During a Zoom news conference organized by the Florida Consumer Action Network, workers, labor leaders, and activists argued that legislation being pushed by Republican leaders in the Florida House and Senate is not needed but would harm everyday Floridians.

“We need our legislators to think about their folks back home — the everyday folks and workers that are relying on them to keep them safe,” said Susan McGrath, the network’s executive director.

“Most businesses do the right thing, and that’s great. But we need to not allow the opportunity for a bad actor to be able to hurt everyday working families,” she said.

Asked about the legislature during a news conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he worries fear of liability might prevent nursing home managers from relaxing anti-COVID protections to the extend vaccinations allow.

“If they’re scared of getting sued, they’re going to err on the side of restricting the residents more than is necessary,” he said.

The legislation moving through House and Senate committees ahead of the March 2 start date to the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature would erect barriers to the courthouse for plaintiffs claiming they contracted COVID through businesses, individuals, charitable organizations, nonprofits, public or private educational institutions, government entities, and religious institutions.

Separate legislation would cover individual practitioners including doctors and nurses, plus hospitals, nursing homes, abortion clinics, and other medical facilities.

Business interests argue the legislation would head off frivolous claims that might force business and health institutions to close. Critics argue that few lawsuits have been filed thus far and that in any case the burden of proof for these claims already is high.

Barbara DeVane, representing Florida Now and the Florida Association of Retired Americans, found inclusion of abortion clinics among the protected facilities interesting in light of a separate GOP bill to ban abortions at five months.

“What a bunch of hypocrites in the Capitol — the Republican legislators that say they are anti-abortion, and yet these clinics are on the list,” she said. “Strange, isn’t it?”

Michael Levine, an attorney representing the family Publix worker Gerardo Gutierez, who died of COVID after the company refused to let him and other employees wear masks at work, also participated in the news conference.

“To this day, Publix has never taken any responsibility for its misguided decision,” he said.

“Our lawsuit is one of the very few that have been filed, and it’s necessary to hold companies who do the wrong thing accountable. That’s what our justice system exists for. Legislation that provides immunity sends the absolute wrong message. All is does is serve to give companies a free pass and incentivize cutting corners when it comes to workplace safety.”

“It’s offensive that lawmakers are thinking not about making front-line workers’ jobs easier and safer, or about finding ways to speed up vaccine distribution, but concentrating instead on how to let the most well-funded and well-connected off the hook for intentionally doing the wrong thing,” said Vicki Gonzalez, a registered nurse and union leader who works at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Update: This story has been amended to include comments from the governor.