Florida House, Senate pass bill to protect small businesses with COVID-19 liability shield

Florida House, Senate pass bill to protect small businesses with COVID-19 liability shield

Crucial bills that would shield Florida businesses from COVID-19 liability may soon become law.

Florida lawmakers are moving closer to passing critical bills into law, protecting Florida businesses from frivolous and opportunistic lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 72, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was passed by the full Senate March 18, on a 24-15 vote – it will now be sent to the House for consideration.

“This good bill will separate the serious and meritorious claims brought against a Florida business or health care provider from the claims that are unfair or inappropriate as our state continues to fully reopen and recover,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

“Our laws should offer strong protections for hard working health care workers and diligent businesses across our state who have made a good faith effort to adhere to safety guidelines that have been continuously updated and revised as we gain more knowledge about how to better manage the coronavirus,” he added.

The House version of the bill, House Bill 7, sponsored by state Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Hillsborough County, was passed March 5 on a 83-31 vote. Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers from both chambers have said the measure is a top priority this year.

The bills extend civil liability protections to businesses, schools, religious institutions and non-profits who make a “good-faith effort” to abide by public health guidelines. The bills do not apply to heath care facilities such as nursing homes.

These protections aim to give businesses breathing room and stability in resuming services as the end to the COVID-19 pandemic comes into view. “Florida businesses have been pushed to the limit unlike any other time in the last 100 years,” said McClure in support of the House bill. “We don’t want frivolous lawsuits affecting our businesses, adding another layer of uncertainty on them.”

Lawmakers are moving quickly to enact the COVID-19 liability shield because of the drastic consequences these protections will have for the economic wellbeing of Floridians and state tax revenues.

One Florida TaxWatch report estimated that the lack of liability protections may have cost the Florida economy as much as $16.1 billion and 208,000 jobs lost 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.

“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 added.

The bills set ground rules for COVID-19 liability claims by creating a three-tiered process for lawsuits related to the pandemic. 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.”

These protections will give businesses and other institutions the peace of mind and stability to stay open and in operation as the pandemic winds down and life returns to normal.

Florida lawmakers must 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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