Democrats appear resigned to passage of bill limiting COVID-exposure lawsuits

Florida Capitol, Colin Hackley

Florida House Republicans on Thursday set up a final vote for Friday on legislation that would make it harder to sue businesses, charities, schools, health care providers, and churches for exposing everyday workers, customers, and patients to COVID-19.

They did so with remarkably little drama in less than 20 minutes, but the legislation had already survived more than 40 amendment attempts by Democrats during committee hearings to soften its language, and also during an earlier House floor debate on that chamber’s version of the legislation.

Fentrice Driskell, of Hillsborough County, policy guru for the Democratic caucus, said fellow party members were well aware that the odds were against them. Additionally, opposition is not unanimous within the caucus, she said.

Unless something extraordinary happens, the House seems likely to vote final passage on the liability bill and send it to DeSantis, who promised his support for it during his State of the State address opening the 2021 legislative session on March 2.

He and GOP leaders argue the liability shield will spare businesses and care providers still recovering from the COVID recession from dodgy lawsuits.

Trade unions, progressive organizations, and  trial lawyers, on the other hand, argue it would erect impenetrable barriers to ordinary people seeking redress for coronavirus exposure on the job, in health care settings, and in businesses that flouted social distancing guidelines.

They’ve pointed to Geraldo Gutierrez, a 70-year-old Publix employee from Miami who allegedly contracted his fatal case of COVID on the job from an infected coworker. Publix allegedly forbade its employees to wear face masks and gloves to protect themselves.

Under the legislation (SB 72), people alleging exposure to COVID must state specifically how it happened; submit a physician affidavit backing their story; and demonstrate the business failed to make a good-faith effort to comply with “authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance.” They’d also have to establish gross negligence, a high standard of proof.

As for health care providers, they’d be protected against claims including failure to diagnose COVID, provision of experimental treatments, delay because of the pandemic of non-coronavirus-related procedures, or any harm caused by lack of protective equipment or staff during the crisis.

Plaintiffs in these cases would not need physician affidavits but would have to establish that the facility committed gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Defendants could prevail if they demonstrate by the greater weight of the evidence that they acted in good faith.

Colleen Burton, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the bill would not affect workers’ compensation claims by health care workers.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.