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Bill to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits now law

By Tami Stevenson

As businesses and entities struggle to re-open or keep their doors open, a growing concern has been expressed that unfounded or opportunistic lawsuits for COVID-19-related claims could threaten their financial survival.

The concern is that time, attention, and financial resources diverted to respond to the lawsuits could be the difference between individuals and entities succeeding or failing as they attempt to emerge from the pandemic. One protection that has been offered is the provision of heightened legal immunity from COVID-19 claims to fend off meritless lawsuits and preserve scant resources, as stated in the bill’s summary.     

     Monday, March 29, 2021 the bill was signed by the Florida Legislature and hit Governor Ron DeSantis’s desk early in the day. He had until April 5, 2021 to act on it, but on the same day, in an effort to provide crucial liability protection to individuals, businesses, educational institutions, religious organizations, and health care providers for liability claims related to COVID-19, he threw a bill-signing party, of sorts, and invited Tallahassee-based band, Highway 85, to highlight an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic and curtailed by concerns of liability.

     “Over the course of the past year, our state’s businesses, health care providers and other organizations have been forced to operate in fear of frivolous lawsuits with no merit threatening their livelihoods,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “Thanks to the hard work of President Simpson, Speaker Sprowls, and quick passage by the House and Senate, that fear ends today with my signing of SB 72, which provides much-needed liability protections against COVID-19 related litigation. As we move forward in our state’s economic recovery, this good piece of legislation will provide Floridians with greater peace of mind as they go to work, go to school, and go about their daily lives.”

    CS/SB 72 is a combination of SB 72 and SB 74, with some additional changes. SB 72 creates civil liability protections for individuals, businesses, governmental entities, churches and other organizations against COVID-19-related claims. SB 74 provides lesser liability protections to health care providers, who are defined in the bill, and provides procedures for civil actions against them.

     Among other measures, CS/SB 72 provides immunity from COVID-19 related claims for individuals, businesses, schools, and houses of worship if a good faith effort was made to comply with health standards and guidance related to COVID-19. The bill also creates strong affirmative defenses for health care providers that substantially complied with and relied upon health standards.

       For example, one of the measures of this bill is the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the defendant did not make the good faith effort. Additionally, the plaintiff must meet the heightened standard of proving that the defendant’s acts or omissions were grossly negligent by the clear and convincing evidence standard.