Florida businesses may now be better protected against lawsuits linked to COVID-19. Florida just joined a growing number of states adopting COVID-19 liability protections after federal legislation failed to gain approval. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law March 29. The law was passed to reduce the threat of unknown liability "in the wake of a pandemic that has already left many of these businesses, entities and institutions vulnerable" by:
- Imposing heightened pleading standards
- Shifting burdens of proof
- Shortening the statute of limitations to one year
How does the law apply to civil actions?
The law requires plaintiffs in COVID-19-related civil actions to do two things:
- Plead their complaint with particularity
- Submit an affidavit signed by a physician that attests the plaintiff's damages, injury or death occurred as a result of the defendant's acts or omissions
If the plaintiff cannot meet these conditions, the action must be dismissed without prejudice.
If the court decides the claim can proceed, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to make a good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance. If so, the defendant is immune from civil liability. A COVID-19-related claim only proceeds to a jury if the court concludes that the defendant did not make a good faith effort. Even then, the plaintiff must prove the defendant's acts or omissions constituted gross negligence by clear and convincing evidence.
The law sets up separate liability protections for health care providers. The plaintiff in a covered COVID-19-related civil action against a health care provider must also allege the claim with particularity. But they do not have to submit a physician's affidavit. The plaintiff must prove the health care provider was grossly negligent or engaged in intentional misconduct by the greater weight of the evidence.
The law also creates affirmative defenses for health care providers who either substantially complied with government-issued health standards for COVID-19 or infectious diseases or where:
- Substantial compliance with the standards was not possible due to widespread shortages of necessary supplies, equipment, or personnel
- There was not enough time to implement such standards
What does the law mean for business owners?
The law affords substantial protection to Florida business owners. It will serve as a major hurdle to plaintiffs claiming COVID-19-related damages, injury or death in Florida.