“Tort reform” has long been a Republican priority – especially in the state of Florida. GOP legislators talk often about the necessity of placing harsher restrictions on plaintiffs’ ability to pursue compensation for fraud, injuries and a staggering range of other harms. It’s a rare election where voters don’t hear Republican candidates blame “trial lawyers” for making life more expensive for average citizens.
These “reforms” are often pushed by big industry players and other companies who lavishly fund the campaigns of GOP legislators and – quite frequently – write the bills themselves.
Florida Republicans have struggled futilely for years to address what they consider a legal crisis in the Sunshine State. But dramatic changes to the state Supreme Court mean that new restrictions on plaintiffs’ rights are more likely than ever to pass in Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature.
The Bills Under Consideration
Florida Republicans have long argued that the legal environment in the state is far too friendly to “frivolous” lawsuits. Republican legislators, insurance companies and big businesses claim that the state invites these lawsuits through an overly litigious environment.
The American Tort Reform Association ranked Florida as the second-worst “judicial hellhole” in the country – behind California and just ahead of New York City – a designation which Florida Republicans eagerly seized upon to justify their new push to restrict civil tort lawsuits.
Democrats and trial lawyers vehemently disagree with this characterization, and a 2014 ruling by the state Supreme Court disparaged claims of a medical malpractice “crisis” in Florida.
However, Democrats don’t have much say in Florida politics these days – Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. As a result, policy in the state will be driven almost entirely by the whims of Republican legislators and judges.
An emboldened Florida GOP is considering a number of tort reform bills. The most advanced is Florida State House Bill 17, which was scheduled to go before the House Judiciary Committee in early April. The bill would impose a $1 million cap on non-economic damages in personal injury cases. A product liability provision in HB 17 was removed amid fears it would interfere with the state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
These caps are not new – Republican Governor Jeb Bush had signed similar caps into law early in the new millennium. But two rulings by the state Supreme Court in 2014 and 2017 struck them down as unconstitutional. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Tom Leek of Ormond Beach – an insurance company lawyer who is pushing many of the tort reform bills under consideration in the legislature – told reporters the court decisions were “wrong.”
In total, the state legislature is considering six different tort reform bills. Companion bills in the state house and senate would allow insurance companies to initiate the appraisal process after a homeowner has announced his or her intention to sue, which trial lawyers fear could delay needed repairs. And the bills would also prevent homeowners from suing insurance companies for “bad faith” if the homeowner wins during the appraisal process.
A Conservative Court
This legislative push has roots going back decades in the state’s political history.
Florida Republicans are emboldened because the state Supreme Court has a dominant 6-1 conservative majority. When Republican Ron DeSantis won a narrow victory in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election, he also won the right to immediately appoint three judges to the state’s highest court. The three judges dramatically changed the composition of the court when they were sworn in.
There are now no judges on the court who were appointed by a Democratic governor. This is a result of the Republican Party’s complete dominance of the governor’s mansion in recent decades – Republicans have held the governorship uninterrupted since 1999. Democrats expected to break that streak last year, when they had a charismatic candidate in Andrew Gillum running in a blue wave year, but DeSantis won an upset victory by about 34,000 votes (out of more than 8.2 million cast).
As noted above, previous caps on damages had been struck down by the state Supreme Court. With a new conservative majority entrenched on the court, Florida’s Republicans are betting that new restrictions will find a much more amenable legal environment.