Florida small businesses need COVID-19 liability protection to re-open safely

Florida small businesses need COVID-19 liability protection to re-open safely

New bills look to protect Florida businesses from frivolous and opportunistic lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida lawmakers are looking to fast-track a measure to protect businesses statewide from frivolous and opportunistic lawsuits based on COVID-19 related claims.

House Bill 7, introduced by state Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Hillsborough County, extends liability protections to businesses, schools, religious institutions and non-profits who make a “good-faith effort” to abide by public health guidelines.

“A small-restaurant owner shouldn’t have to worry about making payroll because a predatory actor seized on an opportunity to sue and settle,” McClure said. “HB 7 does what 21 other states across the country have done already, and it does it better.”

HB 7 cleared its first hurdle Jan. 13, when it passed with a 11-6 vote from the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee. The bill now heads to the House Health and Human Services Committee for further consideration.

The bill is a priority for the House and a “win for small business owners,” Speaker Chris Sprowls noted following the subcommittee vote.

Failure to shield Florida businesses from COVID-19 related liability could have drastic consequences for state coffers and the economic wellbeing of Floridians going forward.

One Florida TaxWatch report estimates that lack of liability protections may have cost the Florida economy as much as $16.1 billion and 208,000 jobs between March and September 2020.

The report estimates personal incomes could see a maximum loss of $14.6 billion, while state coffers may see a $1.5 billion hit, if a meaningful liability shield isn’t passed into law.

The bills create a three-tiered process for lawsuits related to COVID-19 claims. Tier one requires that any claim include an affidavit from an actively licensed Florida physician “attesting that the defendant caused the plaintiff harm,” like contracting COVID-19 on the premises of a business.

Tier two requires that the Floridian suing a business, school or religious institution prove they failed to make a good-faith effort to follow relevant health guidance. Tier three requires “clear and convincing evidence” that such actions were “at least grossly negligent.”

Senate Bill 72, introduced by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is an identical bill that was filed as a companion to the House bill.

“The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an uncertain legal climate for Florida businesses, which could result in serious and ongoing economic challenges for our entire state,” said Brandes.

“These important protections will aid in separating the serious and meritorious claims brought against a Florida business from the claims that are unfair or inappropriate as our state continues to fully reopen and recover,” he added.

Florida lawmakers should move quickly to approve legislation to protect businesses, schools, religious institutions and non-profits from costly, frivolous lawsuits attempting to take advantage of small Florida businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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