Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis has been travelling the state as part of his “Rally at the Restaurant” tour, calling on the creation of a bill in the 2021 legislative session to extend liability protections for small businesses from what he calls “frivolous litigation.”
These lawsuits could come from customers and employees alike, who may claim that businesses haven’t taken enough precautions to protect people from the coronavirus.
Speaking at Strings Sports Brewery Thursday morning, Patronis said if nothing is done in the Florida Legislature to protect small businesses, many will collapse and shut down.
“You'll create an environment where attorneys will circle [them] and small businesses will be put out of business by this environment,” Patronis said. “We can't let that happen, and especially we can't allow it to happen in Florida.”
Small business owners in Jacksonville also spoke at the media conference on Monday. Scott Adeeb owns Strings, and said it’s been a challenge bringing customers to the restaurant while trying to follow all of the CDC guidelines.
“Until this project came to me, I didn't even realize the potential litigation aspect of it,” Adeeb said.
Fernando Meza, the operating partner at The Wreck Tiki Lounge in Jacksonville Beach said his business has enough monthly pandemic-induced struggles, let alone a potential lawsuit.
“I mean, when you're talking about attorney fees, it gets expensive, and if the attorneys don't want to drop the case, it could cost thousands and thousands of dollars,” Meza said. “At this time of the year, business is down a certain percent... it could definitely put us out of business.”
Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond, who is also the CEO of K9s for Warriors, a local nonprofit, said his sector could get slammed with lawsuits as well.
“Nonprofits are ripe targets for greedy lawyers,” Diamond said. “As a lawyer myself, I can tell you, they look at people whose reputation is their number one value, and they know [they] can file lawsuits against them, and then they know they'll settle quickly. It's a strategy.”
Patronis said he’s not looking for legislation that will completely shield businesses.
“This is not blanket immunity to a business if they're not abiding by CDC guidelines,” Patronis said. “It’s whatever the men and women of the Florida Legislature deliberate is common sense policy. If they're not abiding by this, this provides no protection at all. You have got to look out for your people.”
But some other statewide organizations believe that providing legal protection could lead to businesses not making safety a priority.
Bill Newton, the deputy director for the Florida Consumer Action Network, told WJCT News that the potential of this legislation becoming law is concerning.
“What this does is basically just gives [businesses] a free pass,” Newton said. “So they can cut corners, do whatever they want, and they don't have a worry or concern that they hurt someone. That's just going too far.”
In regards to Patronis’ statement that it wouldn’t provide blanket immunity for businesses that aren’t following proper guidelines, Newton said making sure businesses are following rules would be hard to track.
“The thing about lawsuits is that [businesses] really, really respect that and have to be concerned,” Newton said. “They have to be worried about it, and therefore they're worried about the health of their customers and their workers.”
Newton also said he doesn’t believe lawsuits will be filed lightly.
“My understanding amongst us - the consumer advocates - is that these would be very difficult lawsuits to pursue because it's hard to prove your case on how somebody got infected,” Newton said.
A data sheet from Patronis’ office said that there have been 450 COVID-19 related lawsuits filed since the beginning of the year, although he said most have been aimed at large corporations, such as Walmart, McDonalds and Amazon.
At the media conference, state Sen. Aaron Bean, who represents Duval and Nassau counties, guaranteed that there would be legislation filed soon to take up the issue for the next session, which begins in January.
Sky Lebron can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.