TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami / NSF) – The house took a step closer on Thursday to help protect businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
But a House panel also tabled a separate bill earlier in the day that would allow more medical malpractice lawsuits to be brought against doctors and hospitals and, as some critics say, send mixed messages to healthcare providers during the pandemic.
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The entire House spent less than two hours debating the Corporate Liability Act (HB 7), with the Republican majority downing six Democrat-tabled amendments.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, would protect businesses, schools, and churches that have essentially followed public health guidelines. The protection would apply in COVID-19-related lawsuits for damage, injury or death.
The bill would in part increase the burden of proof in COVID-19 lawsuits from simple negligence to gross negligence to standards of evidence ranging from the current “greater weight of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence”.
While the proposal focuses on protecting companies from lawsuits, Democrats raised concerns about workers, tens of thousands of whom have seen rejection of employee compensation claims for COVID-19 infections.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, proposed an amendment that would have changed workers’ compensation laws to assume that certain frontline workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were infected in the workplace.
The proposal would have affected healthcare workers, paramedics, paramedics, law enforcement officers, firefighters and teachers, as well as other school workers who were physically required to work.
Driskell said she was inspired by her sister, a teacher, a Tampa police officer who got infected at work, and a nurse who turned to Driskell to say she was scared because she wasn’t at work sufficient personal protective equipment has been made available.
“We’re welcoming our frontline people very quickly,” said Driskell. “We tweet about it, we make it available on social media. We are happy for you, we are proud of you. Well, let’s honor them with some action. Let’s honor them with a way to have protection. “
Driskell’s amendment was rejected by 78-40 votes.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg proposed an amendment that would have prevented employers from retaliatory against workers who miss their jobs for testing positive for COVID-19, suspected of having COVID-19, or being quarantined.
Diamond said the change was necessary because “we have people in Florida who are nervous about calling in sick.”
Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said adding employee protection could also make tourists feel more secure when they come to Florida.
But Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, called the proposed amendment “redundant” and said employees already have this protection by law.
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Companies had asked for protection from legal proceedings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but were unsuccessful. However, the Republican-led legislature has promised to ease litigation related to COVID-19.
The House and Senate have initially enacted identical protective measures for companies outside the healthcare sector, which indicates a possible agreement. The chambers have specified process protection for health care providers in separate invoices.
But the Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg told Florida Intelligence Tuesday that it intends to consolidate protection for general businesses and healthcare providers into one bill.
The House is expected to pass its non-healthcare business bill on Friday. This makes it one of the first two bills of this year’s legislative period. Ultimately, the House and the Senate would have to work out all the differences in a final version.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill is a provision requiring plaintiffs to obtain affidavits from Florida doctors stating that the defendants’ acts or omissions caused the harm, injury, or death.
Companies that, in the courts’ opinion, have “substantially” adhered to government-issued health standards or guidelines are excluded from liability.
Diamond tried twice, unsuccessfully, to change the affidavit during Thursday’s floor discussion.
Meanwhile, the House’s Civil Justice and Property Subcommittee unanimously voted Thursday to propose a bill (HB 651) providing for medical misconduct litigation alleging the unlawful death of single, childless adults. The bill would allow parents of such adults to seek compensation for mental pain and suffering and lift a ban on such claims for more than 20 years.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican from North Fort Myers, who said the ban was affecting the lives of certain adults. He said it was a “free kill” policy for doctors and hospitals.
While the Republican-controlled house body voted partisan on other bills, Roach encouraged bipartisan voting.
“If you’re a Republican and you’ve started a campaign where you talked about the sanctity of life and held bad actors accountable, you should be voting on his bill,” Roach said. “If you’re a Democrat and you’ve run a campaign to ensure that every class of people has equal access to justice and protection under the law, you should be voting on this bill.”
Jacksonville attorney and health lobbyist Chris Nuland said the unanimous support from the panel was disappointing. He also pointed out other issues doctors faced, including last year’s bills, which gave more authority to advanced nurses and pharmacists. Doctors have long spoken out against such extensions of the “scope”.
“It is not good news for doctors, especially in connection with the extent of the practice expansions from last year, the risk of increased premiums for wrongdoing this year and the fact that even the COVID liability protection for doctors is not a guaranteed passport period” , said Nuland, who campaigns for or for specialist groups of doctors.
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