State Politics

House passes limits on lawsuits

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House handed trial lawyers a double defeat Thursday by passing a pair of bills to limit “slip-and-fall” lawsuits against businesses and cap fees the state pays to outside attorneys.

The slip-and-fall bill would make it harder for injured people to win lawsuits by undoing a 2001 Florida Supreme Court ruling in the case of Evelyn Owens, an Osceola County woman who slipped and fell in a Publix grocery store on what was later identified as a small part of a banana.

The measure (HB 689) would require victims in the future to prove a business knew or should have known a dangerous condition, such as the piece of banana, had existed for sufficient time to have fixed or removed it or that it was foreseeable hazard.

The justices had removed a similar requirement in the Owens decision.

“We have been operating under the current law for eight years and what we have found simply is that the cost of defending frivolous slip and fall lawsuits have risen dramatically when compared with the same businesses operating in other states,” said Rep. Rep. Gary Aubuchon, a Cape Coral Republican who sponsored the bill, which passed 110-2.

The other measure (HB 437) puts a $50 million cap per case on fees paid to outside lawyers representing the state in lawsuits.

The bill is a top priority of Attorney General Bill McCollum, also a Repub- lican candidate for governor.

It passed on a near party-line vote 71-40 with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats against.

The sponsor, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said his bill would prevent the kind of “pay to play” situations that have occurred in other states where attorneys general have hired lawyers who also made big contributions to their political campaigns.

Opponents argued the Legislature should let each attorney general make his or her own policy rather than requiring them to abide by McCollum’s limit.

Both sides also cited Florida’s settlement with tobacco companies for about $13 billion to reimburse the state for helping care for sick smokers. The state hired a “dream team” of lawyers and paid them $3.2 billion.

Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, argued the state never would have gotten the settlement without the contingency fee. If the state had lost the case it would have paid the lawyers nothing.