New clout of trial lawyers unnerves legislators
By ALISA ULFERTS and MICHAEL SANDLER
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's trial lawyers endured a humiliating blow four years ago when the business-friendly, Republican-led Legislature slashed jury awards in personal injury lawsuits.
After licking their wounds, the lawyers regrouped and have spent the last few years seeking out and supporting candidates -- not just Democrats -- who are more inclined to see their way.
The result: a Senate populated by enough moderate Republicans to block what lawyers consider onerous caps on pain and suffering awards in nursing home lawsuits and, possibly, medical malpractice lawsuits.
"As an organization, we've had to learn to be more bipartisan," said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.
Their newfound clout was enough last week to doom a bill, supported by Senate President Jim King, that would have limited pain and suffering awards in nursing home lawsuits to $250,000 in cases where the defendants agreed to arbitration and $350,000 in cases where they did not. The bill is alive in the House, where the trial attorneys' influence is far weaker, but still would have to pass both chambers.
The nursing home bill never even got a Senate committee hearing, prompting one nursing home industry lobbyist to declare the "world-class butt-whipping" a "victory for the trial lawyers."
The victory was several years in the making. In 2000, the trial attorney PAC gave just under a third of its contributions to Republican legislative candidates, with the rest going to historically supportive Democrats. In 2002, the PAC gave just more than half its contributions to Republican candidates.
"Supporting Republicans who have shown an appreciation for the civil justice system" has earned the trial bar "a seat at the table" in the Senate, Carruthers said.
Attorneys' influence in the Senate is expected to spill over into the medical malpractice debate, with King, R-Jacksonville, predicting death for damage caps in those cases, too. Faced with skyrocketing liability insurance premiums, doctors and hospitals want to limit lawsuits against them, and in particular want a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages.
"There aren't enough votes to pass a cap on noneconomic damages in the Senate," King said.
The attorneys' status in the Senate has only further increased tension between that chamber and Gov. Jeb Bush.
"To shut down a president's priority is kind of a breath-taking example of their power, and I don't know why everybody is so fearful of them," Bush said.
The fear is so great that even some members of the conservative House have privately questioned the political wisdom of voting against the trial lawyers on issues such as damage caps when their fate appears sealed in the Senate.
Those in the insurance industry, which has to pay out the jury awards, also have taken notice of attorneys' clout.
"What it says about the trial lawyers is that they are very well organized, very focused and a powerful influence to be reckoned with in both houses," said Guy Marvin, president of the Florida Insurance Council.
With the potential for momentum to build, insurance veterans fear the trial lawyers' influence may overlap into other major insurance reform measures being discussed this session.
One day after the nursing home decision, a House subcommittee looking at reforming personal injury protection auto insurance backed off two controversial amendments. Both were strongly opposed by the trial lawyers, including one that would have made it easier for an insurance company to get out of paying the plaintiff's attorneys fees.
Because PIP has a $10,000 coverage limit, attorneys say few people would want to spend their own money on legal fees to collect what could just be just a few hundred dollars.
"We have to keep telling ourselves, this is only the second week of the session," said George Grawe, a lobbyist for Allstate. "Their argument appeared to have won the day. Yet, frankly, I did not think it was that persuasive. It shows their influence."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire