Fear of new limits prompts flood of lawsuits before DeSantis signed restrictions into law
TALLAHASSEE – Tens of thousands of lawsuits – an almost 700% increase – flooded the offices of court clerks across Florida days before Gov. Ron DeSantis signed sweeping new business-backed legal restrictions which help shield insurance companies, property owners and others accused of wrongdoing.
The law went into effect with DeSantis’ signature on Friday. But the lawsuit logjam will take months for clerks and later judges to sort out, officials say.
Critics said that there’s no shortage of irony in that the push by the state’s biggest business associations to limit lawsuits first spawned a tidal wave of litigation.
The crush was prompted by attorneys seeking to have cases heard under less-restrictive laws that were in place before Friday. The host of legal changes would apply only to lawsuits filed after that day,
“There are many cases that would’ve been turned down or would’ve been settled pre-suit. But given the deadline, you have to file a suit to protect your client,” said Todd Michaels, a Coral Gables lawyer and secretary of the Florida Justice Association.
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Who's to blame?
“They brought this upon themselves,” Michaels said of insurance companies, seen as a key driver of the legislation. “They were just in such a rush to take people’s rights away so completely and as soon as possible.”
But the Senate sponsor of what many call the biggest civil justice overhaul in Florida history, said the cascade of lawsuits merely shows that the changes are needed.
“I think it proves to us that the system is kind of broken and we need to reform it,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine. “You’re seeing all these lawsuits being filed now and it’s going to shock the system for a little bit, but eventually it will work itself out and we’ll be able to move forward under the new provisions.”
The legislation was signed by DeSantis within hours of receiving the bill.
What the overhaul means
It revamps attorney fees, the time frame for filing negligence lawsuits, “bad faith” cases against insurers, premises liability and comparison of fault, an issue which brought a parade of motorcyclists to the Capitol during earlier committee hearings concerned it limits their ability to sue when injured in accidents.
In mostly party line votes in the Republican-controlled Legislature, the measure (HB 837) was approved 23-15 in the Senate after sailing 80-31 through the House last week.
“Instead of improving the lives of the average person, it will absolve bad actors of their duties and responsibilities,” Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, warned in debate Thursday, saying the measure further empowers insurance companies over consumers.
After the legislation passed, Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Brewster Bevis said the restrictions will save Floridians by “putting an end to the tort tax that was forced on Florida businesses and consumers by billboard lawyers.”
But for now, the courts are straining.
Carolyn Timman, the Martin County clerk and president of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said about 82,000 lawsuits have been filed statewide in March, almost seven times the average 12,000 cases.
The largest share of the lawsuits landed in the last week.
“Our concern, of course, is our resources to be able to handle these cases,” Timman said. “That’s a big volume for us. We’ll be working closely with the judiciary, as well, because I’m sure they have a lot of the same concerns. It’s a lot of cases, certainly in a really compact time period.”
The ability of staff to process the volume of cases is compounded by the need to issue notices, and summonses, and later schedule pre-trial motions and handle evidence and jury selection as the lawsuits move toward trial, Timman said.
Martin County, alone, has had 524 lawsuits filed this month. Normally, a monthly total is about 90, she said.
Michaels, the lawyer with the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial attorneys, said his organization urged Republican sponsors of the civil justice restrictions to adopt a more phased-in approach to enacting the legal changes.
But he said supporters insisted on having the law take effect as soon as the governor’s signing, even though many Florida laws have a July or October effective date.
“Once this bill became effective, rights that people had will be gone,” Michaels said. “So it put lawyers in a position where you had to file before the governor signs it. The legal system now completely changes.”
More time needed, defenders say
The Florida Defense Lawyers Association, which sides with insurers and other leading industries promoting the lawsuit restrictions, wrote Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz on Thursday, requesting an administrative order granting more time for defense clients to respond when sued – because of the backlog.
The association fears companies could default in claims made against them by not timely responding to a suit.
“This drastic increase in lawsuits will create a statewide issue that will impact the rights of defendants,” the association wrote Muniz. “This will cause defense firms and attorneys undue burden and stress. There are not enough hours in the day to answer all of these complaints.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Thousands of Florida lawsuits filed before DeSantis limits kick in