Florida business leaders are declaring a renewed war against lawsuits, and they point to a new survey showing the state among the worst in the nation for litigation.
The Harris Poll survey for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Florida is the fifth worst for having courtrooms unfriendly to businesses. The poll of more than 1,300 business owners and their attorneys found that the state ranks lowest for what they perceived to be partial trial judges, unfair juries and treatment of class-action lawsuits.
Eighty-nine percent of the business leaders surveyed nationally said their growth and jobs have been unfairly hurt by litigation.
Gov. Ron DeSantis joined lawmakers and Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson Wednesday in Tallahassee to reveal the survey findings. Wilson said lawsuit reform is at the top of the agenda and is confident Florida's rankings will rise because of the new governor and Supreme Court appointments.
“In prior governors, Governor Scott, Governor Bush, they've signed legislation into law, only to have an activist Supreme Court overturned many of these victories,” Wilson said. “So you heard Gov. DeSantis today say those days are over.”
The survey was done for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, which works nationally to change laws governing how and when businesses can be sued. It found that Florida ranked 46th in the nation overall, assigning it a D grade. Survey respondents felt that Florida’s trial judges were not impartial, its juries were unfair and class-action lawsuits were overly accommodated.
The state's business lobby has spent decades challenging Florida's trial lawyers over lawsuit reform. Businesses have argued that frivolous and excessive legal actions stifle job creation and raise the cost of living for everyone. Pro-consumer groups and trial lawyers point to the courts as the only safeguards against irresponsible companies and their products or actions.
DeSantis said the scales are tipped too far against business. He said his three Supreme Court appointments earlier this year will begin to turn the tide for the state’s business climate.
“One of the things where, I think, you had some reservations for people that have the ability to invest in Florida was the legal climate in the state of Florida,” he said. “And part of that I think was there was a lack of trust and confidence in Florida's judiciary. So we had an opportunity, I think, to set a new standard with being able to apoint three great justices to the Supreme Court in my first three weeks in office.”
DeSantis and the assembled lawmakers and business leaders at the announcement Wednesday decried what they called a “lawsuit culture.”
“It's not just in Florida, this has happened in the United States …,” the governor said. “… It seems where even if the person that gets sued is 100 percent innocent, they look at it and say, OK, well to be able to defend this, it's going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. So I'm better off as a business decision just cutting a check and having them go away. That to me is more of a lawyer-driven culture than it is based on people who've actually suffered harm.”
Florida's trial lawyer advocacy group said in a statement it will keep an eye on lawmakers this session to ensure that courthouse doors remain open for those who have been wronged.
"The Florida Justice Association agrees that it is critical to have a strong, robust system of justice where people can vindicate their rights," said the group's president, Leslie Mitchell Kroeger. "Access to our courts and trial by jury are cornerstone rights established in both the Florida and U.S. Constitutions. We look forward to working with Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature during the 2020 session to protect people’s access to justice and develop unbiased, well-researched policy solutions by Florida, for Florida.”