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Constitutional challenge filed to Florida tort `reform' statute.

In December, a coalition of 10 organizations, joined by 2 taxpayers, filed a declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court of Leon County challenging Florida's new omnibus tort "reform" law, the result of a three-year multimillion-dollar campaign by the state's business community. An earlier version of the law was vetoed in 1998 by then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.

According to the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, the legislature enacted the law "for the express benefit of corporations, big businesses, and their insurers who otherwise would be held fully accountable for their negligent and unlawful acts that cause injury to Florida citizens." (Florida Consumer Action Network v. Bush, No. 99-6689 (Fla., Leon County Cir. Ct. Dec. 8, 1999).)

The complaint said the law was "the culmination of unprecedented business lobbying and financial contributions to legislators who rewarded business interests by enacting legislation that transfers responsibility for catastrophically injured Florida citizens from corporate wrongdoers to the injured citizens and the taxpayers."

The law, which largely went into effect October 1, 1999, set up a confusing multi-tiered approach to joint and several liability that caps defendants' damages based on the percentages of fault assigned to plaintiffs and defendants. The law mandates arbitration in certain circumstances, creates a presumption that products have a useful life of 10 years unless otherwise warranted, ends aircraft manufacturer liability for planes older than 20 years, and caps punitive damage awards.

The law also insulates rental car companies from full responsibility for injuries caused by the operation of their motor vehicles, eviscerates numerous common law causes of action, immunizes business interests from full accountability for their negligent and wrongful acts, and changes the process and procedures of the courts to benefit defendants.

The plaintiffs charge that the law violates multiple provisions of the Florida Constitution, including separation of powers, equal protection, due process, the right of access to the courts, the right to a jury trial, and the bar against special legislation.

The state attorney general's office will defend the law. In addition, tort "reform" groups have raised substantial sums toward a goal of $1.5 million to hire a legal team in the law's defense.

The plaintiff coalition represents a broad array of Floridians. It includes the Florida Consumer Action Network, the Coalition for Family Safety, Florida League of Conservation Voters, Florida AFL-CIO, Association of Flight Attendants, DES Action USA, Children's Advocacy Foundation, Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, Florida NAACP, Florida National Organization for Women, and Florida State Council of Senior Citizens, Inc.

The coalition is represented by W.C. Gentry and Wayne Hogan, two past presidents of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers; Miami lawyer Joel S. Perwin; and Robert S. Peck, ATLA's senior director for Legal Affairs and Policy Research.
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Author:Peck, Robert S.
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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