TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a win for Big Business, the Florida House approved a bill on Wednesday that makes it more difficult for injured plaintiffs to win product liability damages from auto makers and othermanufacturers.
The measure (SB 142) was approved by a vote of 80-35 and will be sent to Republican Gov. Rick Scott. It had previously cleared the Senate.
The bill, which the pro-business Scott is expected to sign, neutralizes a 2001 Florida Supreme Court decision against Ford that said evidence of the primary cause of a crash, such as driver error or drunkenness, cannot be introduced in product liability cases.
According to the new law, juries would have to "consider the fault of all persons who contributed to an accident when apportioning damages in a products liability action."
"Not giving the jury all the details, including a critical piece of information about the driver's condition, is unfair and absurd," said Barney Bishop III, president of Associated Industries of Florida, the state's lobby for big business.
"Correcting this inequity will now open the doors to automotive manufacturing companies that previously had not considered Florida as a base of operation," Bishop added.
The legislation on the "crashworthiness doctrine" was the focus of a lobbying duel between trial lawyers who represent injured parties and business interests led by Ford Motor Co.
Under that doctrine, if, for example, "an airbag fails to deploy during an initial collision and the driver subsequently collides with the windshield, the manufacturer may be liable for damages attributable to the second collision caused by the defective airbag," according to a staff analysis.
Democrats have argued the bill would shift medical costs for seriously-injured crash victims to taxpayers and that manufacturers should be held accountable for their mistakes.
"See how much they paid to make sure this happens," state Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami, said in debate, referring to Ford's and other business interests' campaign contributions to Republican lawmakers.
"What this bill says is, if you don't put on a seatbelt, it's your fault," Steinberg added. "But if the seat belt doesn't work, it's not their fault."
But state Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said the "doomsday scenario" that deserving plaintiffs would go empty-pocketed from the courthouse was unfounded.
"Judges can still make rulings about quality and weight (of evidence)," he said. "We shouldn't shield relevant evidence from juries."
The law overrules the decision in the case of Karen D'Amario, whose then-teenage son was badly burned and lost three limbs when the car he was riding in crashed into a tree and exploded. The driver was killed.
D'Amario alleged her son's injuries were due mostly to the explosion caused by a defective relay switch on a fuel pump. The jury sided with Ford, which argued the switch was fine and blamed the fire on the collision because it ruptured the car's oil pan.
The justices ruled that the jury was confused by evidence that the driver was drunk and speeding, instead of focusing on the product liability allegation. The opinion reversed the jury's verdict and said such evidence should be excluded from future cases that allege "enhanced" injuries.