The Speaker of the Florida House indicated the lower chamber will take the faster route on a measure giving senior care facilities more protection from lawsuits. It could undercut more than 100 lawsuits already filed in South Florida against facilities for negligence or malpractice.
So far, votes to move the bill out of committees and out of the Senate have all been along party lines, with Republicans having the numbers to pass it without Democratic support. The latest vote in the Senate was 24-15.
Under senate bill 72, a facility would have to be grossly negligent or have committed “intentional misconduct” to successfully bring a COVID-19 lawsuit. The facility would also be immune from lawsuits over personal protective gear if a shortage made PPE hard to come by or the facility could not find it at a “reasonable cost.”
The legislative fight is the latest in a constant struggle between industry groups and trial lawyer organizations.
Many attorneys, and the deceased family members they represent, fear this could be similar to a get-out-of-jail free card for many facilities they claim have been negligent during the pandemic.
The author of the bill, Senator Jeff Brandes (R-Pinellas) hopes to prevent lawsuits aiming for a quick-settlement out of court.
The Florida senate sent the Brandes proposal to the Florida House while merging it with a similar bill for lawsuit protections for businesses. Senior care industry groups have been pushing for this measure since the pandemic began last year. Republican House leadership indicated the heavy lifting might be over.
“We think it’s a great product, we’re going to work closely with them,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, Speaker of the Florida House. “We anticipate picking up, passing that bill, and getting it to the Governor’s desk as soon as possible.”
Speaker Sprowls told reporters the lower chamber will not take up their version, HB 7005, which ends the new protections after one year.
The bill could have far reaching impacts. In Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties, more than 1,500 people have died in more than 250 senior care facilities. NBC 6 investigators found 118 negligence and malpractice lawsuits have already been filed in court.
Kristen Knapp from the Florida Health Care Association represents the majority of Florida senior care facilities and says the bill is meant to protect facilities from an onslaught of lawsuits.
“Our caregivers showed up everyday and they put their lives at risk,” said Knapp, “And then you come in and you have lawyers second guessing every decision that you make.”
Democratic senators made an effort to tweak the bill Thursday, including a push to exempt facilities with a history of infectious disease violations from the new lawsuit protections. That amendment was voted down by the Republican majority.
The minority leader in the Senate, Gary Farmer (D-Broward), says if a facility was giving proper care, they wouldn't have anything to fear from the current court system.
“It’s just as simple as that. Don’t fear the truth. Don’t fear due process,” Sen. Farmer said.
State lawmakers have until the end of April to pass bills into law. Governor Ron DeSantis has indicated he will sign a bill.