What happens to a personal injury plaintiff under the new Florida tort reform law?
Tort reform is not a new concept. As our society grows increasingly litigious, policymakers seek to put protections in place for an overburdened legal system.
A “tort” refers to civil (i.e. not criminal) liability for a defendant whose negligence causes injury to a plaintiff (the injured person).
But tort reform can be controversial, though it aims to strike a balance between preserving the rights of plaintiffs to seek compensation for their injuries and reducing the burden on the courts.
There are strong arguments from advocates on both sides:
Those who favor tort reform say that the justice system is costly and inefficient. They also believe that damage awards are excessive, which encourages frivolous lawsuits.
People who oppose tort reform argue that it restricts an injured plaintiff from seeking just compensation and it limits the accountability of corporations and governments.
What laws contribute to tort reform?
There are a few ways lawmakers seek to accomplish tort reform:
- Damage caps: Some states limit the amount of compensation a plaintiff can receive in a lawsuit, especially for claims like pain and suffering or other non-economic damages.
- Attorney fees: Some states limit the amount of attorney fees charged in some types of cases.
- Mandatory arbitration: Some states require a contract that includes a clause that binds the parties to arbitration to settle disputes in order to avoid the court system.
- Statutes of limitations: Every state has time limits for when a lawsuit must be filed. In some states, these deadlines have been shortened in order to reduce the number of lawsuits.
Florida tort reform bill: House Bill 837
The Florida tort reform bill was signed by Governor DeSantis in early 2023.
House Bill (HB) 837 is designed to protect business owners, property owners, and corporations from paying excessive damages in lawsuits and reduce frivolous lawsuits.
The office of Gov. DeSantis says the bill would eliminate one-way attorney fees and attorney fee multipliers for insurance, which would reduce frivolous lawsuits. It would also limit damages sought by multiple plaintiffs and reduce the state’s statute of limitations (i.e. deadline) for negligence claims from four years to two years.
The new law also expands immunity for a property owner defending against a criminal injured on their property.
Effect on bad faith insurance claims
Those who oppose the bill believe it will make it more difficult to file a lawsuit for someone who’s been wronged by their insurance company.
Some say that by protecting private businesses, it removes their incentives to keep customers safe. The new law sets forth a higher standard that makes it difficult for an insurance policyholder to bring a bad faith claim against an insurer. In other words, if you’re the defendant who owes a significant amount of damages to a plaintiff after an accident, and if your insurance company refuses to protect you, you have little recourse. The injured person receives the compensation they’re due—the defendant must pay the damages if the insurance company refuses to resolve your case in good faith.
Changes to Florida comparative negligence rules
The law also changes Florida’s comparative negligence system. A plaintiff who is more at fault for their own injuries than the defendant may not recover damages. Florida effectively transforms from a pure comparative negligence system to a modified comparative negligence system.
Prior to the law, a plaintiff’s recovery could be reduced according to their percentage of fault for their own injuries. The defendant could also claim less liability to the plaintiff based on this “balance” of responsibility. Under the new law, any party who is at least 51% liable may not recover any damages.
Changes to evidence rules at trial
HB 837 also changes evidence admissibility at trial as related to medical treatment. It limits the type of evidence presented to include only the amounts for unpaid charges the health care provider must pay if the claimant has insurance other than Medicare or Medicaid. If the plaintiff has health insurance and receives covered treatment, then only unpaid charges would be included as damages.
Limitations on liability for landlords
Landlords and property owners will receive more protection in lawsuits by tenants if the tenant was injured by a criminal on the property. As long as the property includes certain precautions, like video surveillance and adequate lighting, the landlord is presumed not liable.
Will the new Florida tort reform law affect you?
Some lawyers believe the law will have a negative impact on lower-income individuals. But if you are a property owner or business owner, it could be to your benefit.