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Year's First Major Tort Bill Sails in Senate Judiciary

January 11, 2011 - 6:00pm

Automakers would be granted more protection from lawsuit losses in crash cases under a measure that got its first committee hearing Tuesday in a battle pitting business groups and the Republican-led Legislature against trial attorneys.

By a 5-1 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure (SB 142) that would reverse a 2001 Florida Supreme Court ruling surrounding what evidence can be entered into trial in automobile product defect cases. Brought at the behest of the Ford Motor Co., the bill would allow automakers to admit additional evidence including driver error in cases of enhanced injury caused by design flaws and product defects.

Backers say the measure, sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples , would allow the jury to get both sides of the story and close a loophole they say is costing the auto industry millions in damages as attorneys flock to Florida to take advantage of relatively generous laws.

This law is unfair and it does not pass the common sense test, said Doug Lampe, an attorney for Ford. This bill is about apportioning the fault.

Supporters of the status quo say judges already have the discretion to admit evidence they think is relevant in cases involving enhanced injuries caused by product defects in crash cases. To insulate the automobile industry from product liability would further erode the incentive to engineer safe products, opponents of the bill said.

If Ford Motor Co. says they stand by the crash worthiness law, why change it? asked Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

The bill would retroactively give businesses some lawsuit protections that they were denied by a 2001 court case. That court case made automakers liable for damages in the case of a defective part, regardless of a driver's behavior.

The bill specifically boosts protections for automakers by allowing them to present more evidence when they are sued for product defects that result in enhanced injury following a crash. Florida is among a handful of states that consider a crash -- and any fault of the driver in that crash -- unrelated and irrelevant to injuries caused by defective parts or design.

In 2001, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Ford, saying manufacturers could be held solely liable for design defects that enhanced the injury suffered in a crash, regardless of who was at fault in the crash itself.

The court's rationale for excluding evidence of the driver's fault in causing an accident is that the accident-causing fault is not relevant to whether an automobile manufacturer designed a defective product.

The bill would eliminate the separation and allow juries to hear details on the events leading up the liability claim and then apportion fault. Along with evidence of the faulty part, juries could hear, for example, whether the driver was drunk, driving recklessly, or otherwise impaired.

The bill would assist Ford Motor Co., which did not benefit from federal bailout efforts at General Motors and Chrysler beginning in 2008 that have provided those car makers some immunity from defective product lawsuits.

Florida lawmakers have consistently added barriers to the law to make it harder to win big lawsuit payouts since Republicans took over the Legislature more than a decade ago.

In 2006, business-led backers pushed through legislation to do away with the last vestiges of Florida's joint and several liability laws, which allowed individual defendants to be financially responsible for paying a claim regardless of their degree of fault.

Gov. Rick Scott campaigned on reducing regulation and making it easier for businesses to cut costs and said in his inaugural speech that tort reform was essential to his chief mission of creating jobs.

Meanwhile, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, have both said efforts to free businesses from costly lawsuits are a top priority for them too.

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