Florida sends COVID-19 legal protections bill to governor

A little more than a year after COVID-19 began wrecking the economy and infecting and killing Floridians, state lawmakers on Friday gave final approval to a bill that will shield from coronavirus-related lawsuits businesses ranging from nursing homes to grocery stores to restaurants.

The measure, which the House passed in an 83-31 vote, was a top priority for politically powerful business groups that had been pushing for the legal protections since the pandemic began in spring 2020. The Senate passed the bill (SB 72) last week, meaning it is now ready for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.

The House vote came following limited debate at the tail end of a lengthy floor session dedicated primarily to a contentious measure about cracking down on violent protests.

But supporters of the legislation (SB 72) contended that shielding businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19 was needed as the state continues to recover during the pandemic.

"The future of Florida depends on the ability of our businesses and health care providers to stay in business," said Rep. Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican who was a primary sponsor of the bill.

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But Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the bill would protect corporations more than people and pointed out it offers no protections for front-line workers who contracted the virus while on the job. Employees are required to use the workers’ compensation insurance system for on-the-job injuries, but claims often are getting denied.

Eskamani said she’s concerned the bill would make it more difficult to seek what she called a "judicial pathway to justice."

"We don’t always have to be so one-sided or focus on a zero-sum game to solve some of these problems. In fact, members, all boats can rise together," Eskamani said. 

She added that, "we do have policy solutions to support the business community and to support our workers. Not everybody actually has to lose something to gain something."

The bill would establish new rules in personal injury lawsuits related to COVID-19. For example, people who file personal injury lawsuits that don’t allege medical malpractice or violations of nursing-home resident rights must first get state-licensed physicians to sign affidavits that the defendants caused the injuries or damages. Additionally, business owners would be immune from liability if courts determine they made good-faith efforts to substantially comply with government-issued health standards or guidance.

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Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Tom Feeney said in a statement that the legislation was "the most pressing issue" for businesses that worked on a task force about reopening the state’s economy during the pandemic.

"Now, with this legislation, Florida businesses can predict their COVID-19-related litigation risks, remain viable and continue to contribute to the state's economic recovery and well-being," said Feeney, a former House speaker.

In pursuing COVID-19 medical malpractice claims or nursing home-related claims, people filing lawsuits would not need to obtain physician affidavits. But they would be required to prove that the health care providers’ actions were grossly negligent, which is a higher legal threshold than normal. Health care providers that substantially complied with authoritative or applicable government-issued health standards or guidance related to COVID-19 would also have immunity.

"I think this provides doctors the appropriate level of protection for having done the right thing," said Chris Nuland, a Jacksonville attorney who lobbies for physician organizations.

Physicians were the first to push for the lawsuit protections, asking DeSantis in March 2020 for an executive order to limit liability. The Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, and the Florida Hospital Association followed with similar requests asking for protections from civil and criminal lawsuits.

DeSantis, who is an attorney, never responded to the requests. Still, DeSantis in recent months has publicly supported protections, especially for nursing homes, which were closed to outside visitors for nearly six months to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

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DeSantis maintains that a fear of lawsuits has made nursing home operators afraid to reopen their doors to visitors.

In a statement, Florida Health Care Association CEO Emmett Reed said the bill will ensure nursing homes can "continue to direct their limited resources where they’re needed most --- caring for residents and supporting staff."

Reed also encouraged DeSantis  to "sign this crucial legislation quickly so our long term care facilities can remain focused on delivering the high-quality care our state's seniors depend on."