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Sun Sentinel: It’s time to fix Florida’s problem with punitive damages

Monday, March 16, 2015

When it comes to our legal system, we all know that a reasonable approach is a necessary in helping the business community thrive and grow. As an organization, the Associated Industries of Florida advocates for a fair and balanced civil litigation system for all industries and businesses. Unfortunately, this is not what we have in Florida today.

There is a lingering issue that has caused Florida to become fraught with excessive civil damages awards – awards that create serious threats to our business climate. In Florida today we are operating two different systems for civil cases in our courts. Think about like this: It’s like Florida’s SEC and ACC football teams having to play by different sets of rules in the same game, which is obviously ridiculous. Hard to believe, I know, but that is the reality.

In this session, we have an opportunity to fix this Florida judicial fairness problem. There is currently simple legislation being considered by the Legislature – Senate Bill 978/House Bill 1067 – that would address this issue in a way that is fully consistent with AIF’s mission.

This legislation would apply the punitive damages formula of current law enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 to all pending cases.

Let’s be clear about what this legislation does and what it does not do. First, it doesn’t affect compensatory damages for plaintiffs at all. This means that all medical bills and other actual expenses like lost wages will continue to be paid. Second, on top of those actual compensatory damages, punitive – or punishment- damages will still be imposed against defendants.

Perhaps most importantly, the bill clarifies that the Legislature’s 1999 limitations on punitive damage calculations (for example 3 or 4 times compensatory damages) must apply to all pending cases filed after that law was enacted. This law change was made for a simple but critically important reason – to protect all plaintiffs and preserve the finite resources of defendants. This law allows plaintiffs to receive the damage awards they are due, instead of permitting unlimited damages to be awarded to the “first” plaintiffs in line, to the detriment of those whose cases may not have been heard and decided as rapidly.

In short, this legislation guarantees that all pending cases are handled the same and everyone operates under the same set of rules and damage calculations. They’re not changing the law; they’re just clarifying that it must apply to everyone.

This legislation will bring a level playing field for all businesses which is critical to our future economic survival.

AIF commends Sen. Garrett Richter and Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, for championing this common sense clarification that represents a major step in the right direction for Florida in bringing much needed clarity to the courts upon which our businesses and citizens rely.

We urge legislative leadership to make sure this bill receives prompt consideration in the committee process during the ongoing session and we encourage other lawmakers to co-sponsor and support this important bill. It is the right approach that is good for business, good for the people of Florida and will help make Florida the best state in the nation to live and work.

Tammy Perdue is general counsel of Associated Industries of Florida, which has represented principles and prosperitiy and free enterprise in Florida since 1920.

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