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    Law limiting damage suits upheld on appeal

    Opponents say they will take their fight to the state Supreme Court.

    ©Associated Press
    October 10, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- An appeals court on Wednesday reversed a trial judge who had ruled unconstitutional a 1999 law shielding businesses from some lawsuits and limiting awards in court cases.

    The 1st District Court of Appeal said Circuit Judge Nikki Clark erred when she let opponents proceed with a lawsuit challenging the law. In February 2001, Clark agreed with opponents that the law violated the state Constitution by covering more than a single subject.

    The state and business groups appealed to the district court, which agreed with them in a 2-1 decision.

    Businesses hailed passage of the law in 1999 as a major victory in their fight against liability lawsuits. It puts a 12-year deadline on lawsuits against most products, except that the deadline is 20 years for lawsuits against airplane manufacturers over design flaws.

    Other highlights include a formula to determine when a business must pay damages in a case when it isn't entirely at fault and caps on punitive damages unless a victim can prove the wrongdoing was intentional.

    Since the state appealed Clark's ruling, the effect of her decision was stayed and the law remained in effect.

    The constitutionality of the law, however, has been challenged in several injury lawsuits, with about a half-dozen trial judges finding the law unconstitutional and a couple upholding the law, according to Paul Jess, a lawyer for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

    The academy and 10 other groups, including the Florida Consumer Network, the Florida AFL-CIO, the Florida State Conferences of NAACP Branches and the Florida State Council of Senior Citizens, filed the lawsuit that landed in Clark's courtroom.

    "We're now on to the Florida Supreme Court," Jess said.

    In Wednesday's ruling, the district court wrote that the allegations in the lawsuit "are grounded on speculation and hypothesis" and plaintiffs failed to say how the law would directly hurt them.

    That being so, there was no real dispute to be litigated, Judge Richard Ervin wrote for the majority. Judge William Van Nortwick agreed with Ervin. Judge Edwin Browning dissented; he would have affirmed Clark's ruling.

    The court did not reach the issue of whether the law violated the constitutional requirement of dealing with a single subject. But it did ask the Florida Supreme Court to address whether the standard for allowing a lawsuit to go forward was less when the issue was a single-subject challenge.

    Business leaders are prepared for a legal fight.

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