March 25, 2010
Today, Senate President Jeff Atwater (R-Palm Beach) led The Florida Senate in resolving some legal reform issues that are typically the most heated legislative debates – the kind that pit the business community against the trial bar and have frequently involved last minute deals and wrangling late into the session. President Atwater expressed his commitment to get these matters resolved early in the session so that Senators could focus their attention on other pressing issues before the state, including job creation, the budget and education. AIF salutes President Atwater for his leadership and unwavering commitment to handling the legislature’s business in such an efficient manner that ensures the citizens and businesses of Florida are well served.
Earlier today, the Senate debated and discussed the following four measures, and agreed to immediately vote on all of them for final passage as indicated.
The Senate passed the Transparency in Private Contracting Act, (HB 437/SB 712) by Senator John Thrasher (R-Jacksonville), by a vote of 27-11. HB 437 passed the House of Representatives a few days ago, allowing this legislation to proceed directly to the Governor to be signed into law.
This legislation has been a top priority of Florida’s Attorney General, Bill McCollum. His tenacity and vision should be commended on this establishment of fairness in contracting for legal representation of the State of Florida.
Most importantly, this legislation puts reasonable limitations on contingency fee awards to private law firms, exclusive of costs and expenses related to litigation. This limitation would ensure that the people of Florida get the maximum benefit from the litigation, while attorney’s working on these cases continue to receive adequate compensation. It defies imagination that $50 million in attorneys’ fees, exclusive of costs and expenses, would not be enough money to pay lawyers to represent the state, even in the most significant cases.
This bill also creates an open, accountable structure for how the office conducts business for the people of Florida. The bill requires that private legal services engaged on a contingency fee basis be competitively procured, if possible. It also requires the Attorney General to post those contracts, time cards and payment records online, thus providing more transparency and accountability to the Florida public.
AIF salutes Senator Thrasher for his dedication to this important issue. Florida’s Attorney General serves as the state’s chief legal officer, thus requiring the resources that this bill provides to handle certain complex cases with this legislation’s policy. This measure passed today will guarantee accountability, transparency and reasonableness in that process.
SB 1224 by Senator Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) clarifies that a plaintiff bears the burden of proving that a business owner had constructive or actual knowledge of a hazardous condition on its premises when the plaintiff sues for damages from a slip and fall injury. This bill was desperately needed following a 2001 Florida Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates of “slip and fall” litigation throughout the state, rendering the summary judgment mechanism meaningless since the Court placed the burden of disproving an injury allegation on the business owner. Since the plaintiff initiates the lawsuit, it is reasonable for the plaintiff to bear the burden of proving their case. This bill restores that important requirement. The Senate today passed Senator Gardiner’s bill by a vote of 32-5. This bill also passed the House of Representatives and will now proceed to the Governor’s desk for his approval.
AIF salutes Senator Gardiner for his courage in correcting this situation by creating a new law that levels the playing field and provides stability and fairness in litigated cases.
The Senate passed another bill today that seeks to clarify a Florida Supreme Court ruling relating to a parent’s ability to sign waivers for their children to participate in certain recreational activities. SB 2440 by Senator Mike Bennett (R-Sarasota) unanimously passed the Senate today. The House Criminal & Civil Justice Policy Council passed an identical measure, HB 285 by Representative Mike Horner (R-Kissimmee), earlier this week. This bill provides more clarity for the use of waivers, and should generate more predictability in those types of cases.
AIF salutes Senator Bennett for his diligence in working with all interested parties to create legislation that begins to address this important situation for Florida’s tourist and recreational businesses.
The final bill passed by the Senate this morning increased the amount of damages a local government can pay without requiring a claims bill before the Legislature. SB 2060 by Senator Mike Bennett (R-Sarasota) increases the current cap of $100,000 per person and $200,000 per incident to $200,000 and $300,000, respectively. It is important to note that these amounts had not been raised since 1981!
This measure is supported by local governments and attorneys for the injured claimants. A similar measure in the House, HB 1107 by Rep. Peter Nehr (R-Tarpon Springs), has passed the Civil Justice & Courts Policy Committee.
AIF salutes Senator Bennett for his vision in crafting legislation that provides a more efficient and equitable process for resolving disputes.