TALLAHASSEE – In a rare display of muscle both political and physical, angry motorcyclists have crammed hearings at the Florida Capitol demanding changes to fast-moving legislation they fear will blunt their chances of suing when injured in an accident.
Many in the crowd wore “Bikers over Billionaires” T-shirts, mocking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ own “Don’t Tread on Florida” campaign shirts. They’ve been calling out the governor, who they accuse of caving in to insurance companies and other big donors by supporting the legislation.
The tort reform push (HB 837), a priority of DeSantis and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is set to go before the full House Thursday. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved its version (SB 236) of the measure Tuesday night.
As with virtually everything on DeSantis’ wish list, the Republican-controlled Legislature is poised to OK sweeping limits on lawsuits, mostly shielding businesses big and small along, with insurance companies, from the risk of costly payouts.
“These are drastic changes. They’re calling it tort reform. But it’s really ‘let’s screw over Florida so (DeSantis) can get to the White House,’” said Jose Mack, 55, of Hudson, who goes by J-Mack, and is a leader of motorcycle clubs and organizations in Central Florida.
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DeSantis is expected to formally kick off his bid for the Republican presidential nomination soon after the Legislature adjourns in May. But Mack said many bikers feel betrayed by Florida’s dominant Republicans, whose politics they usually back.
“Many are diehard, staunch DeSantis supporters. Trump supporters and the majority of the bikers are lifelong Republicans,” Mack added. “But this is bad for all of us, not just bikers.”
Another motorcyclist, Holly Hill of Sarasota, told the Senate committee that she and other conservative-leaning voters helped bring Republican supermajorities to the Senate and House. But, she said, the changes will harm people like her.
“We belong to a certain demographic,” Hill said. “That’s the demographic that helped you get the supermajority that you enjoy in this Legislature. “What I hear in the hallway is disbelief: ‘I can’t believe I voted for these guys and they’re doing this to hurt me?'”
A critical piece of the wide-ranging legislation would change Florida’s “comparative fault” standard to where someone found more than 50% at fault for their own accident or injuries could not recover any payments for damages.
Motorcycle riders and their attorneys say that failing to wear a helmet, which Florida has allowed for riders over age 21 since 2000, already can be considered by a jury when deciding legal damages.
But going forward under the legislation, if the jury blames the rider for being more than 50% responsible – which many say is not a high bar – the accident victim would be entitled to nothing.
Florida taxpayers may ultimately pick up the tab for the health coverage of a severely injured rider whose insurance falls short.
Under current law, victims can collect whatever portion of damages is assigned the defendant – even if the victim is considered more than 50% at fault.
But House Judiciary Chair Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, said the overall intent of the legislation is to restore balance to a legal system too often abused by greedy trial lawyers.
“The civil justice system is really operating like a casino,” Gregory said. “All you need is an attorney. Once you get in there, you’re going to win. You call it a casino, you can call it an ATM, they’ve got the PIN number.”
DeSantis, backed by the state’s biggest business associations, has called on lawmakers to approve the changes, saying the state is stymied by a “cottage industry of litigation.”
He echoed claims made for years by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups that the state has been a “judicial hellhole.” Much of the focus for supporters is on personal injury lawyers featured on billboards across the state, whose lawsuits they say are driving up costs for every business owner.
Associated Industries of Florida, a leading business lobby, has begun airing TV and radio spots pushing for passage of the new limits.
“This bill provides common sense solutions to our litigious environment, which is one of the biggest single threats to the Florida economy, to job creators and to Gate” Petroleum Co., said Holly Wozniak, a risk manager with Gate, a Jacksonville-based company.
She recently told a House panel that Gate’s insurance premiums soared more than 500% since 2017, even though the company’s claims have been modest.
“Gate has lost countless hours and dollars fighting or settling frivolous lawsuits, because in our state’s legal climate; businesses acting in good faith don’t stand a chance,” Wozniak said.
Opponents, though, said that while insurance companies will be the beneficiaries of the clampdown on lawsuits, consumers will be discouraged from making valid claims.
“I think this represents the largest transfer of money, rights and power from Floridians to the insurance industry that we’ve ever seen,” said Todd Michaels, with the Florida Justice Association, the state’s trial lawyer organization.
The bills advancing in the House and Senate cover a range of issues.
They eliminate so-called “one-way” attorneys’ fees against insurance companies, which now require insurers to pay the legal costs of plaintiffs successful in a lawsuit. Lawmakers erased such fees in lawsuits against property insurers in a December special session, but now are looking to extend that to include auto-insurance cases.
Similarly, proposed changes will make it difficult for consumers to pursue “bad faith” lawsuits against insurers. Such cases involve claims that insurance companies failed to properly handle and settle claims.
Lawsuits would have to be filed within two years – not the current four years – for negligence lawsuits. Changes also are proposed to how medical expenses are presented in malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits that critics say favor insurance companies.
Another key provision of the legislation drawing fire centers on premises liability.
Under the changes, owners of multi-family residential properties – like apartment complexes – would be shielded from legal liability for anyone victimized by crime on the grounds, provided developers installed lights, security cameras, locks on windows and doors, and peepholes on doors.
Opponents have said protecting apartment complexes from liability – especially in crime-ridden neighborhoods – will leave many victims destitute. If someone is killed or severely injured by an assailant, no lawsuit could be filed claiming the complex should have had security guards or taken other safety steps, as long as the new equipment requirements were in place.
Testifying Tuesday night against the legislation were two parents of children killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the mother of Pensacola’s Naomi Jones, a 12-year-old abducted from her family’s apartment and killed, and the father of Maura Binkley, a Florida State University student killed in 2018 when a gunman entered a yoga studio.
Currently, the risk of facing a premises lawsuit encourages good developers to provide better security, critics of the bill say.
“It’s just giving them a pass so they don’t have to do the right thing,” said Robert Bracewell, executive director of the Justice Coalition in Jacksonville, a crime victims support organization. ”The bad actors are the ones that want to be relieved of the risk of getting sued if they don’t have proper security, in crime-related instances.”
The provision comes as Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has prioritized legislation aimed at encouraging affordable housing. The measure, approved last week by the Senate and still awaiting House review, would pour millions of dollars into incentivizing construction of lower-cost apartment complexes for working Floridians.
Some critics see the lawsuit limits as key to helping Passidomo achieve the goal of more housing. Developers could be more inclined to build in struggling neighborhoods, they say, if there are few concerns about being sued.
But others warn that assuring apartment complexes won’t face lawsuits, residents will no longer have the courts on their side.
“This is a bad way to do business,” Bracewell said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport