COVID-19 Business Liability Shield Bill Passes Fla. House

By Grace Dixon
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Law360 (March 5, 2021, 5:57 PM EST) -- The Florida House of Representatives voted on Friday to approve a contentious bill outlining a COVID-19 liability shield that aims to protect Florida businesses from a tidal wave of virus-related claims.

The House sent the proposal containing legal protections for non-health-care operators to the Senate by a vote of 83 to 31, a vote split mostly along party lines and shrouded in criticism over whether the bill goes too far in shielding businesses from ramifications of bad behavior.

Sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, H.B. 7 and its Senate version S.B. 72 would provide legal protections from COVID-19 related litigation to a range of non-health-care entities including businesses, charities and educational and religious institutions.

The bill stipulates that a suit leveling coronavirus-related claims against businesses must be brought within a year of contracting the virus. The time limit will apply retroactively.

Under the bill, any suit bringing claims connected to the virus must be filed alongside an affidavit from a physician attesting that "within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the alleged injuries or damages were the result of the defendant's acts or omissions."

In addition to providing a physician's affidavit, plaintiffs must show that the business in question did not make a good faith effort to comply with government-issued health guidance. The legislation extends immunity to any defendant found to have done so.

Supporters had deemed the bill vital to stemming an anticipated avalanche of litigation brought by employees and customers seeking damages from companies, while also arguing that it's a necessary measure that will allow the Florida economy to recover.

"Florida has the fifth-worst legal climate in America and the last thing we need are a tsunami of frivolous COVID lawsuits as we seek to relaunch Florida's economy," Mark Wilson, CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement after the bill was filed.

Critics had argued that the heightened standards set out within the bill impose hurdles that effectively bar even valid COVID-19 litigation.

Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said that under the bill, businesses would "engage in a race to the bottom to identify the government entity that has the worst and least comprehensive standard" for coronavirus safety and use that standard to receive immunity.

The Florida Justice Association, AFL-CIO and AARP are among organizations that have voiced opposition to the bill.

The Senate version of the bill was sent to the chamber's Rules Committee on Wednesday. If that version of the bill passes, the chambers will have to hammer out discrepancies between the two before sending the legislation to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Florida House of Representatives also voted on Friday to approve H.B. 9. The bill covers far less contentious ground, aiming to protect residents from fraud as they look to book vaccine appointments or purchase personal protective equipment.

Legislators gave the consumer protection bill teeth, making it a felony to falsely market or sell coronavirus vaccine appointments or to sell inauthentic PPE. Florida has recently issued consumer alerts telling residents to be on the lookout for calls offering to set up a vaccine appointment that ask for money or Medicare information.

The bills come as Florida expands vaccine eligibility and as cases trend downwards from the holiday surge, though still remain high. The state recorded 6,118 new cases and 120 new deaths on Thursday.

The Florida legislature is proceeding separately with a bill extending liability shields to health care entities. H.B. 7005 and its Senate version S.B. 74 would extend liability protections to health care providers that "substantially" follow government guidelines.

--Editing by Michael Watanabe.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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