Ron DeSantis, Florida GOP, Breathing New Life into Tort Reform

MIAMI—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders in the state are pushing legislation to make it less attractive to businesses considering excessive lawsuits and relocations that could hurt the state’s economy.

Florida GOP lawmakers are considering a bill in the legislative session that begins this week, at a time when tort-reform efforts across the U.S. are generally on the wane from decades past.

“This is going to be the most important legislative reform in the modern history of the state of Florida,” said the 2024 presidential contender. DeSantis previewed the proposal at an event in Jacksonville last month. “It’s going to make Florida a very attractive place to do business.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers and Democrats who oppose the measure criticize it as an attempt to protect business and insurance profits by reducing people’s ability to hold wrongdoers accountable for harm they cause. Business groups and Republicans who support it argue that Florida’s litigation creates substantial additional costs that will hit consumers’ pocketbooks by raising insurance premiums and other costs.

Studies in recent years by the American Tort Reform Foundation, which seeks to curb perceived abuses of the civil-justice system, have ranked Florida as one of America’s worst “judicial hellholes” for malpractice cases. The US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform has rated Florida’s liability system as one of the least fair in the nation and found the state tops in “nuclear verdicts” of more than $10 million.

That has hindered Florida’s ability to compete for business against states like Texas and North Carolina, said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supports the proposed legislation. “Florida has a lot of momentum,” he said. “But this great wind is pushing back against us.”

A Florida bill under consideration would make several changes to the civil justice system.


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Douglas R. Clifford/Zuma Press

Karri Pajczyk, president of the Florida Justice Association, a trial-lawyer group opposing the measure, challenged the state’s claim that it is a “judicial hellhole.” He said the argument is being used to justify curtailing people’s rights to use the court system to pursue accountability.

The bill would limit the ability of insurance companies to be held liable for malpractice, Mr. Pajczyk said. He said that any complications in malpractice cases can be precisely handled through surgery.

“It’s a blunt axe,” said Mr. Pajczyk said. “This is an extreme bill and beyond what is fair or reasonable.”

The tort-reform movement in the United States began in the 1980s and has included efforts over the years to target issues such as medical-malpractice cases, said Mark Geistfeld, a professor at New York University School of Law. But it is currently in a quiet period, with sporadic activity in the states. In recent years, states like Montana and West Virginia have passed laws backed by tort-reform advocates.

Florida’s proposal builds on a bill that passed a special legislative session in December, then Mr. Signed by DeSantis, it sought to address the state’s property-insurance crisis. Among its provisions was the elimination of so-called one-way attorney fees, which insurers said encouraged plaintiffs’ attorneys to sue to obtain larger fee awards.

The current bill will bring many changes to the civil justice system. A rule would change the way medical damages are calculated when awarded to juries in personal injury or wrongful death cases. Another would change the framework for “bad faith” claims, which are allegations that insurers wrongfully denied coverage under a policy. This rule would make it clear, inter alia, that mere negligence is not enough to show bad faith.

“We want a fair, consistent system that isn’t abused by litigants and doesn’t lead to unrealistic damage awards,” said Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory, the bill’s sponsor.

Rob Sandlin, chief executive of Florida Rock & Tank Lines Inc., a trucking company in Jacksonville, said the company’s auto liability insurance has increased 73% since 2018, despite a 60% reduction in coverage during that time. Driving that disparity is unnecessary litigation, he said.

Accidents are inevitable, and “we want to pay what’s right,” said Mr. Sandlin said. “But on the other hand, we don’t want to pay for accidents we didn’t cause.”

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During a legislative committee hearing on the bill last month, Democratic Rep. Hillary Cassel said businesses come to Florida with the expectation that the legal system provides accountability. “This bill is the opposite of that,” he said. “It benefits insurance company executives. And every day Floridians get hurt… and are going to get hurt.

At the hearing, Peter D’Orazio spoke to lawmakers with his wife, who suffered a devastating stroke and was allegedly misdiagnosed at the hospital with speech and limited movement. He said the legal system helped them hold medical staff accountable.

Without it, Mr. D’Orazio said, “I don’t know where we’d be today—probably homeless, here on a corner begging for money.”

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at [email protected]

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