TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida businesses would be protected from coronavirus lawsuits if they made a good effort to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 under a bill passed by the House on Friday.
The House also passed a bill that would make it a felony to profit off a pandemic by making false or misleading marketing claims about personal protective equipment or the availability or access to a vaccine.
The measures were the first two bills the House passed in the 60-day legislative session that began Tuesday. While the bill to fight fraud during a pandemic passed unanimously without debate, Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided on the bill to shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.
Republicans said businesses are already suffering because of the pandemic and need the security of knowing that they don't have to worry about frivolous lawsuits. Democrats said people should not lose their access to courts if a business failed to protect employees or customers. They also said there is not a need for the bill because only a few dozen lawsuits have been filed — an argument Republicans rejected.
“Right now it's not politically correct to come after businesses that have suffered so much,” said Republican Rep. Bob Rommel, who owns three restaurants. “Trust me, it may be 50 lawsuits now, but if we don't do this it will be 50,000 lawsuits soon.”
Rommel said small businesses could be ruined by a single lawsuit. The bill passed on a 83-31 vote.
In order for a lawsuit to move forward, a plaintiff would have to present a signed affidavit from a Florida physician saying there is a reasonable degree of certainty that the defendant’s actions caused the illness or death.
Democrats argued that doctors would not sign such an affidavit because it's hard to pinpoint when someone contracted the disease.
“For me this bill has a when pigs fly sort of quality to it,” said Democratic Rep. Omari Hardy. “You can file a COVID related tort claim, and you have the possibility of succeeding — when pigs fly, or when hell freezes over, or when doctors do things they know they can't do.”
The bill is a priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and also has the support of Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson. Plaintiffs would have one year to file a claim.
A similar Senate bill has one more committee stop before reaching the full chamber.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.