Governor Signs Substantial Tort Reform Bill
Governor Ron DeSantis has signed HB 837 into law bringing substantial tort reform initiatives to Florida. The legislature entered the 2023 regular session with tort reform as one of its primary objectives. Governor DeSantis, House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo signaled the importance of tort reform earlier this year when they made a joint appearance outlining key priorities.
HB 837 builds on the property insurance-centered reforms adopted in a December 2022 special session. The new law eliminates Florida’s one-way attorneys’ fee statute for all lines of business. The law does allow a claimant to recover attorneys’ fees in a declaratory judgment action brought to establish coverage following an insurer’s total denial of coverage. However, the ability to recover fees in a declaratory judgment action does not extend to a situation in which an insurer provides a defense pursuant to a reservation of rights. The opportunity also does not apply to residential or commercial property insurance.
The new law also specifies that in any action in which attorney fees are determined or award by a court, there is a “strong presumption” that a lodestar fee is sufficient and reasonable. The presumption may be overcome only in “rare and exceptional” circumstances with evidence that competent counsel otherwise could not have been retained. The lodestar fee generally refers to the number of hours reasonably worked in case multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.
HB 837 also reduces the statute of limitations for actions founded on negligence from four years to two years.
The legislature further revised Florida’s bad faith statute such that a bad faith action, whether statutory or under the common law, cannot lie if an insurer tenders the lesser of the policy limits or the amount demanded by the claimant within 90 days of receiving actual notice of a claim accompanied by sufficient evidence to support the amount of the claim. If the insurer does not make a tender within the 90-day period, that fact is not admissible in a future action to establish bad faith.
In addition, the new law specifies with respect to both statutory and common law bad faith claims, that negligence alone does not constitute bad faith. Insureds, claimants and their representatives also are tasked with acting in good faith in furnishing information and making demands, and attempting to settle claims. The new law also establishes a process for resolving claims in which two or more parties have competing claims arising out of a single occurrence which may exceed the available policy limits under an insurance policy.
Another update specifies that the offer of judgment statute applies to any civil action involving an insurance contract.
Further, the new law creates sweeping revisions to the admissibility of evidence to prove medical expenses in personal injury and wrongful death actions. The revisions are intended, among other things, to address concerns with “letters of protection.” The reforms reflect a public policy determination that if a jury is made aware only billed charges, rather than the amount actually paid or the traditionally-accepted value for services in a similar market, damage awards may be inflated.
Other reforms provide that in actions for damages against owners, operators or lessors of commercial or real property related to injuries caused by a person’s criminal act, the trier of fact must consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the injury (i.e., the trier of fact must consider the criminal’s contribution to the injury). Further, the new law establishes a presumption against liability for a landlord of multifamily residential property that takes certain safety measures and engages in certain safety assessments and training. Additionally, the new law precludes recovery in a negligence action by any person who is more than 50% at fault for his or her own harm.
The new law indicates that it applies to policies issued or renewed following its effective date (March 24) with respect to rights under insurance contracts. Other reforms apply to causes of action filed after the effective date of the law.