DeSantis announces lawsuit reforms to protect against 'billboard attorneys'
Appearing in Jacksonville, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that Florida is known as a "judicial hellhole" for the way some attorneys misuse the legal system for their own benefit at the expense of clients.
The governor announced that state lawmakers will work on legislation to crack down on frivolous lawsuits and exorbitant legal fees. He decried so-called "billboard attorneys" and Florida's "cottage industry of litigation."
"Those costs get added onto everything that we do, so one of the reasons our auto insurance rates are higher here is because there are a lot of costs of litigation embedded in these auto insurance premiums," DeSantis said, speaking in front of row upon row of glittering commercial trucks at Kenworth of Jacksonville. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner of Palm Coast joined him.
"There was one case where a client was awarded $216.67, and the lawyer got over $100,000 in fees," DeSantis said. "They are working on a series of reforms to be able to make our system better. We want people to be able to have their day in court if they are harmed, but we don't want cases that are brought where we know there is no real liability, but nevertheless adds costs to the system."
With Florida's 2023 legislative session set to begin March 7, lawmakers will consider reforms that DeSantis said would decrease frivolous lawsuits and prevent some attorneys from preying on Floridians.
Major business groups quickly backed the announcement, with Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson saying the state’s “bottom five legal climate is hurting local businesses.”
“Florida’s current tort climate is one of the top challenges facing businesses in every industry and every corner of our state,” Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Brewster Bevis said in a separate statement.
Making the changes, however, would likely spur heavy debate. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and many Democratic lawmakers argue that trying to limit lawsuits and legal fees will unfairly affect injured people.
Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association plaintiffs’ attorney group, released a statement Tuesday that said the “rights of every Floridian are under assault by insurance companies and corporate elites who think they can dictate which rights should be preserved and which can be tossed aside.”
“Justice is the only thing preventing the insurance industry from taking over our state, limiting our freedom and irreparably decimating the rights of our neighbors, family and friends,” Pajcic said. “The (Florida Justice Association) opposes any legislation that takes away the rights of Floridians to hold others responsible and accountable when they harm you or your family. We hope Florida lawmakers will look closely at what they are being asked to do with this legislation and choose to protect Floridians’ rights and keep Florida free.”
In a statement to WJCT News, Florida Bar President Gary S. Lesser said: "As an arm of the Florida Supreme Court, The Florida Bar’s primary mission is the regulation of Florida lawyers, and we take that duty very seriously, serving to protect the public and the integrity of the judicial system. We investigate complaints with possible evidence of misconduct every day, and encourage any member of the public with such information to file a complaint at floridabar.org/complaint."
Passidomo said most attorneys work hard to provide good legal representation, but lawmakers will now seek ways to stop those who don't.
"Unfortunately, there are a few bad actors who are in the business to draw out civil cases as long as possible, collecting more and more fees from insurance companies, and that has to stop," she said. "I know we can find the right balance and protect the rights of Floridians who suffer a loss, while at the same time safeguarding everyone else against the hidden costs of prolonged litigation."
The legislative reform should help Florida families who have shouldered the "hidden cost of lawsuit abuse," Renner said.
"Florida’s litigation environment has cost the state jobs and driven up the cost of goods and services,” Renner said. According to the American Tort Reform Foundation 'Judicial Hellhole' report, lawsuit abuse costs Florida households more than $5,000 and costs the state more than 173,000 jobs annually, he said.
Proposals include measures to eliminate one-way attorney fees and fee multipliers for all lines of insurance, as well as modernizing Florida’s “bad faith” law and protecting small businesses from paying exorbitant damages, the governor's office said in a news release.
One-way attorney fees require insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who successfully file lawsuits. Lawmakers eliminated one-way attorney fees in December to try to help financially struggling property insurers. But insurance lobbyists also have been calling for eliminating one-way fees in cases involving such things as auto-accident claims.
“We’re just going to take what we did in December and we’re going to apply it to all insurance issues, all litigation in Florida,” said Passidomo, R-Naples.
Lawmakers also will seek to realign Florida’s insurance market to promote more competition, DeSantis' office said. The proposal also would set standards for awarding medical damages to prevent fraudulent practices. These include requiring medical records, procedure codes and information regarding health insurance reimbursement to ensure accurate settlements.
DeSantis said the reforms should make Florida a more attractive place to do business and would represent "the most significant legal reform" ever done in Florida.
On other topics
After his announcements, DeSantis responded to reporters' questions on long-simmering issues.
- Schoolbooks: The state is requiring school districts to review all instructional materials as well as elementary classroom books. Duval County Schools has directed teachers to temporarily cover or store classroom library books as 52 certified media specialists review materials across the district’s nearly 200 schools. In response to a question about news images showing empty bookshelves, DeSantis said it "was a fake narrative. They hadn't even put the books out yet. They are trying to act like somehow we don't want books. ... It's all politically motivated."
- AP studies: The governor was questioned about the state's objections to the College Board's Advanced Placement African American studies course piloted in several states. He suggested Monday that Florida could "reevaluate" its relationship with the organization. On Tuesday, he confirmed that there are alternatives to the College Board. "Who elected them? Are there other people that provide services? Turns out there are," DeSantis said. A program known as Independent Activities Period courses "are actually more rigorous than AP, and the colleges accept it," DeSantis said. "It is not clear to me that this particular operator is the one that will be used in the future."
- Parkland shooting: DeSantis remembered the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and staff members dead, calling it “an abominable act.” Since he became governor, he said, the state has allocated "over $1 billion to bolster school security" and taken other steps to make campuses safer.
- Presidential campaign: Asked whether he would announce a campaign for the presidency after former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley did that on Tuesday, DeSantis said, "Wouldn't you like to know?"
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.