STATEWIDE — As Florida coronavirus cases surge to levels surpassing those seen at the height of last spring's outbreak, the Legislature's Republican leaders are pressing ahead with plans to pass virus-related lawsuit immunity for businesses during the 2021 legislative session.

What You Need To Know

  • Republicans in the Florida Legislature are pushing for pandemic-related lawsuit immunity for businesses

  • Republicans have expanded their majorities in an already pro-business legislature

  • Attorneys warn that COVID-19 immunity could encourage business owners to make poor decisions

The state's business lobby has been pressing for COVID-19 legal protections for months, joining calls for Congress to pass a Republican-crafted civil immunity package dubbed the "SAFE TO WORK Act." Political gridlock in Washington has precluded action, but this month Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) told state Capitol reporters he's in favor of passing a state-level immunity measure shortly after the legislative session convenes in March.

"I don't think you ever, in any condition, put a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID, but I think if you've made the right attempt to follow the CDC guidelines, then that's something that we should take a look at," Simpson said.

More than two dozen states have already passed legislation limiting lawsuits involving employees and customers who fall ill and blame businesses for their infections. Florida hasn't yet joined the list, primarily because the 2020 legislative session had ended just as the pandemic was beginning.

Now, with Republicans having expanded their majorities in the state House and Senate, an already pro-business legislature appears to be even more so. Business lobby heavyweights are making tort reform — which could include COVID legal immunity — a top priority in 2021.

"We have the fifth-worst legal climate in the United States," Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson said in an interview. "There's a reason we have more billboard trial lawyer ads than any other state in the country, it's because our lawsuit abuse system is out of control."

Florida's trial lawyer lobby is expected to forcefully oppose any virus-related legal protections for businesses. Freeing companies from the possibility of lawsuits, some lawyers have warned, could encourage them to make poor decisions — particularly regarding social distancing and cleanliness — that could cause even more coronavirus infections.