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Politics

GOP Has Trial Lawyers On Run

December 1, 2010 - 6:00pm

Trial lawyers are getting the bum's rush at the Legislature, where a Republican supermajority -- led in the Senate by right-minded President Mike Haridopolos -- will push aggressively for tort reform next year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee expects to pass several business-friendly bills under its new chairwoman, Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who co-sponsored a workers' comp reform bill when she was in the House last session.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has already introduced a "crash worthiness" bill (S.142) to redefine "negligence" and "liability." More such legislation will be discussed next week, when the panel convenes Wednesday.

Trial lawyers have successfully bottled-up pro-business bills in past sessions. But the Republican electoral landslide this year further marginalized the trial bar's remaining Democratic allies or purged them altogether.

"The (Judiciary) Committee seems almost stacked to obtain the results leadership wants," says Dan Gelber, who served on judiciary panels in the House and Senate until retiring to run for attorney general this year.

Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat, fears that in the current political climate, "the Legislature will look to settle political vendettas, rather than pursue good public policy."

He said, "Too much of tort reform is about trying to guarantee a specific result. Justice is expected to be blind."

"The supermajoriity should embrace and welcome the minority view," Gelber said.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, says he expects to see just that at the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Anitere Flores is a fair person who is going to let everyone have their bills heard," Large said.

Large added that "the main agenda for business is jobs, and an integral part of that is civil justice reform."

"This is a tremendous opportunity for bills to be heard that haven't been heard in the past," he said.

Associated Industries of Florida says it welcomes the new alignment in the Senate, which now appears to be more philosophically in sync with the free-market sensibilities of the House and incoming Gov. Rick Scott.

"This is the best we've had," said Jose Gonzalez, AIF's vice president for government affairs. "We fully expect to see a range of tort-reform issues debated."

Haridopolos, who appointed Flores to replace John Thrasher, an attorney himself, as Judiciary chairman, deferred comment.

"He's not going to weigh in on every issue before the Senate.It's a member-driven process.Every bill will get three stops and he's not going to stop a bill from moving through the process," Haridopolos' spokesman David Bishop said.

Flores, considered by many a reform-minded attorney, was not available for comment. Nor was Thrasher, R-Jacksonville. A spokesman said he was ill.

Other members of the committee are Richter, Ellyn Bogdanoff and David Simmons. The lone Democrat is vice chairwoman Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. All except Richter, a banker, are attorneys.

Richter's S.142 appears emblematic of the panel's priorities this year.

The bill enables jurors to consider the fault of all persons who contributed to an accident when apportioning damages in a product-liability case alleging an additional or enhanced injury.

Providing "legislative intent to overrule a judicial opinion," the measure declares that a finding of fault should be apportioned among "all responsible persons."

AIF, which lists Ford Motor Co. as a member, calls Richter's bill "a big priority."

"It's a fairness issue," Gonzalez says. "Right now, a jury only hears about a faulty seat belt or bad roof. They don't hear that the driver was on 10 different kinds of drugs and ran off the road."

Last year, trial attorneys defeated a similar measure, claiming that the Florida Supreme Court was correct when it ruled that injuries and product defects were separate issues.

With trial lawyers' voices muted at the Capitol this year, Republican lawmakers and the business lobby aren't buying that distinction anymore. Passage appears virtually assured.

"We're not saying automakers shouldn't be liable for faulty products, but what really caused the accident," Gonzalez said.

"This year there will be more steps taken (on civil litigation reform). This is one of them," Richter told the News Service of Florida.

GOP leaders and plaintiffs' lawyers are likely to clash over at least two other prospective bills: bad-faith claims and sovereign immunity.

Reform legislation on bad-faith claims would provide "safe harbor" for insurers by limiting the period during which a lawsuit can be filed against companies.

The sovereign-immunity legislation would shield emergency-room doctors from liability in certain cases.

Though physicians and GOP leaders haven't always seen eye to eye, Gonzalez expects a united front this year, along with a "great coalition of employers."

Gelber fears that "complex decisions" could get ramrodded through the new Judiciary Committee.

"People of the state will have to live with what the Legislature does," he warns.

But GOP leaders, who have seen the trial bar derail or dilute tort-reform legislation in previous sessions, are determined to rebalance the scales of justice this year.

In a state where courts have been among the national leaders in awarding multimillion-dollar judgments against tobacco companies, business groups say it's time for a fair shake.

"This will be a departure from the past," Gonzalez said.

Editor's Note: This story is Part 1 in a Sunshine State News series analyzing how the conservative swing in the Senate will affect policies, including tort reform, education and health. Stay tuned on Wednesday for the installment on education.

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Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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