Walter Carpenter, chairman of the NFIB Florida Leadership Council and president of Pinel & Carpenter, a real estate appraisal and consulting firm in Maitland, wrote a guest column that ran in the Orlando Sentinel on Jan. 27. He wrote about the importance of COVID-19 liability protections for Florida’s small businesses.
This pandemic has devastated Florida’s economy. It has caused many small businesses to close for good, and left thousands and thousands of people without a job. It has also created a tempting target for greedy trial lawyers looking for ways to exploit the pandemic.
I am the chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ state Leadership Council. We support House Bill 7, a measure that would hold bad actors accountable while offering some legal protections to small businesses and other employers that follow state guidelines and health protocols so they can keep their customers and employees safe.
In a column that ran in these pages on Jan. 11 (”COVID-19 lawsuit immunity for businesses is bad for state”), Dr. Frederick Southwick of UF Health Shands Hospital argued against protecting small businesses and other employers from baseless claims related to the pandemic. He wrote that COVID-19 liability protections would eliminate “accountability and incentives for businesses to reopen and operate safely.”
That’s just wrong, and it means little coming from someone who works for a government-affiliated hospital that’s protected by sovereign immunity, meaning there are limits to what he would have to pay if he was sued.
Small businesses like mine don’t have those protections.
Small businesses like mine don’t have big cash reserves or teams of lawyers to defend us from frivolous claims. Small businesses like mine can go broke and be forced to close because of the money we spend defending ourselves against meritless claims, even if they’re eventually thrown out of court.
Imagine, how could a grocery store that’s following the rules be responsible if someone who didn’t even realize they had COVID-19 comes in? Why should a hair salon be held to account if they relied on and obeyed the government guidelines for personal protective equipment and social distancing?
Dr. Southwick says that “the vast majority of (businesses) are acting responsibly to safeguard Floridians during the pandemic.” That’s true, but what’s also true is responsible businesses across virtually every sector of Florida’s economy have come together to beg the Florida Legislature for protection, because we can’t get people back to work — we won’t get our economy going again — unless we fight the fear of lawsuits.
In fact, under proposals being considered, a business can still be sued if it acts recklessly or intentionally, and there is clear and convincing evidence of liability. That makes sense.
But Dr. Southwick says business owners might mistreat people if they are protected from lawsuits, even though he already enjoys special protections. Does he provide a lower level of care and mistreat his patients as a result? I’m sure he doesn’t. I’m sure he cares for his patients, just like I and the business owners I know care for our customers, without regard to liability.
It’s true, legislation under consideration would provide an extra layer of protection to the essential businesses identified by government leaders. Those essential businesses answered the call, keeping shelves stocked with groceries, walk-in clinics open, and gas tanks full. As the country learned about the virus, guidance changed, overlapped and sometimes conflicted. We did our best to change with it and comply. We are all still doing our best.
The timing is right. As a matter of fact, Florida is way behind 26 other states that have passed some form of COVID-19 liability reform.
Sometime soon, vaccines and proper behavior will slow and hopefully stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We need to ensure Floridians that they will still have a job long after the physical effects of COVID-19 disappear; that Florida’s small businessmen and women won’t see their life’s work gutted by the voracious opportunism of those who would take advantage of a frightening pandemic.
Dr. Southwick is protected from out-of-control lawsuits. Florida’s business owners deserve the same.