State Politics

Legislators favoring business interests over trial lawyers

TALLAHASSEE — The lobbying arm of the Florida trial lawyers limped into this legislative session and the group’s pain is only getting worse.

A handful of measures to change litigation law are making swift progress in the first weeks of session, as advocates capitalize on the Florida Justice Association’s diminished political clout.

“There is a lot of general feeling against trial lawyers,” said state Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, whose bill backed by the Justice Association met tough resistance in a committee Tuesday.

To prove the point, the Florida House is poised to pass legislation today that puts a $50 million cap on fees for attorneys who pursue a case on behalf of the state attorney general’s office and another designed to protect businesses from so-called “slip and fall” lawsuits.

The trial lawyer lobby is typically a powerful roadblock to bills that restrict lawsuits. But the perennial fight between the association and business groups is lopsided this year.

The state’s dismal economy is leading lawmakers to favor business interests under the label of job growth, and the trial lawyers still have a black eye after the foes clashed in a bruising 2009 special election in the Jacksonville area.

The trial lawyers spent big money to oppose state Sen. John Thrasher, who won the seat in September. And the law group later made an embarrassing mea culpa acknowledging that it mailed a controversial flier that warned of “violence and intimidation at the voting booth.”

Thrasher, a former Republican House speaker and Florida Medical Association lobbyist, is now the chief advocate for two bills opposed strongly by the trial bar. One that would grant emergency-room workers at private hospitals sovereign immunity from costly lawsuits is highly controversial, but is progressing further than ever before.

Though it’s still early in the nine-week session, lawmakers and lobbyists are focusing attention on three bills — the attorney fee caps on state cases, the slip and fall protections and another measure to restore a parent’s right to sign a negligence waiver for a child — that are most likely to pass this year.

The momentum shift is putting the trial lawyers on the defensive.

Even a measure the group is backing to allow larger judgments in lawsuits against the state and local governments met ardent opposition in a House committee.