For decades, Republican legislators in Florida have sought to limit the amount of certain types of legal damages plaintiffs can receive. With the appointment of what is being called the most conservative Florida Supreme Court in decades, some state lawmakers are seeing an opportunity to have tort reform legislation passed that will likely survive the inevitable legal challenges.
At the center of conservative legislators' sights are damages for pain and suffering. Representative Tom Leek - who is also chief legal counsel for a Daytona Beach-based insurance firm - recently introduced a bill to place a $1 million cap on noneconomic damages, which includes any kind of damages that does not have an easily discernible monetary value. Rep. Leek argues that such reform is required to "balance out" the current litigation environment and provide stability for businesses and their insurers (like the one he works for). The Orlando Sentinel has noted that more than a third of Leek's political committee financing has come from the insurance industry.
Noneconomic damages aren't the only type of compensation Rep. Leek is trying to trim. Another bill he co-sponsored would exempt vehicle owners from liability for vehicles they lease to others - including heavy construction equipment. This change can drastically affect what compensation is available to people involved in commercial truck accidents lawsuits and certain types of construction accident lawsuits. The vehicle owner is typically the one responsible for the registration and condition of the vehicle, meaning they have to keep it properly maintained, inspected and registered, among other things. Removing liability from the vehicle owner makes it harder for victims of accidents involving their vehicles to file a third-party claim, even against the company or person primarily responsible for the problems that cause the accident.
Neither of these bills has passed yet, but Republican legislators clearly believe that the current legal environment in Florida will allow them to make these controversial changes to the state's personal injury laws. Florida Watchdog, a project of the nonprofit Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, says there are six tort reform bills currently before the Florida legislature.
Other States Watering Down Personal Injury Damages
Florida isn't the only state looking to reduce the amount of damages that can be sought by victims of various personal injuries:
- New York - A bill is being considered to limit noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits
- Missouri - In March, the legislature passed a new bill limiting premises liability of landowners and businesses for injuries that occur on their property
- Texas - A bill that supporters allege will limit "frivolous" personal injury lawsuits could wind up being so broad that it prevents even some legitimate claims
These are just a few examples. Other states are also considering bills aimed at reducing damages or even preventing some kinds of personal injury lawsuits altogether.
The changes are not limited to new legislation, however. In some cases, state courts are redefining the scopes of existing laws. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled in a split decision that motorists could not seek more than their covered amount of personal injury protection (PIP) insurance - even if they were not at fault in a crash. The dissenting opinion by Judge Jose Fuentes highlighted the extra burden this ruling places on low-income individuals, who often cannot afford to pay premiums for more than the minimum amount of coverage ($15,000). As a result, many accident victims wind up owing hospitals tens of thousands of dollars after their PIP runs out, as happened to the two plaintiffs in this case.
What You Can Do
If your state is currently considering reducing the amount of damages for personal injuries, you have the right to voice your opinion. Contact your state representatives to let them know how you feel.
Also, if you or a loved one has been injured due to an accident, medical negligence or some other situation beyond your control, you have the right to seek compensation to cover medical expenses, lost income and other financial impacts arising from the injury. To get a free case review, simply choose the type of personal injury case you want to pursue below: