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House panel would allow interest payments on noneconomic verdicts

Insurance interests are up in arms about a House committee’s approval of a bill that would allow plaintiffs to recover prejudgment interest on noneconomic claims, including pain and suffering.

HB 469 says that plaintiffs who prevail in lawsuits could collect interest — at a rate now set a 4.9 percent, but varying with inflation — from the date of a loss.

They could collect against attorney fees and costs, too.

Exiting law provides for prejudgment interest on economic claims only, or when provided for by contract.

The Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee approved the measure Thursday on an 11-4 vote. Details here (scroll down).

A companion measure, SB 334, by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sponsor Shawn Harrison, an attorney from Tampa, said plaintiffs could not collect interest on punitive damages.

The bill would clarify a “gray area” in the law, he said.

“A person who is damaged by a tortfeasor is just as damaged regardless of whether they have an action in contract or in tort,” Harrison said. “Why should there be a difference?”

Katie Webb, representing the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, warned the measure would increase pressure on carriers to settle unworthy claims.

“It could create an incentive for insurance companies to settle cases early, prior to thoroughly investigating and defending, when appropriate, certain claims that are questionable,” Webb said.

Representatives of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the American Insurance Association, and the Florida Justice Reform Institute were among those who opposed the bill, warning of the potential to increase the cost of doing business.

James Gustafson, representing the Florida Justice Association, argued existing law makes an unfair distinction between economic and noneconomic damages — say, loss of vision. Such an injury “every bit as significant and important and real” as an out-of-pocket loss, he said.

Committee members Erin Grall noted that before prejudgment interest becomes an issue, there has to be a judgment or verdict.

“For anybody to take for granted how easy it is to prove causation, you have not presented in front of a trial court in Vero Beach, Fla.,” she said.

George Moraitis Jr. thought it unreasonable to expect defendant companies to calculate pain and suffering awards.

“It’s a speculative number, and no one really at the beginning can say what do they think a potential jury of unknown people at the time a case starts, how much is that going to be worth,” Moraitis said.

“No one is going to settle a case that they truly believe they are in the right on because of an extra 5 percent that might be awarded,” Harrison said. “We are talking about sophisticated corporate defendants here. They know how to play this game.”

Following the vote, Personal Insurance Federation of Florida President Michael Carlson issued a written statement reiterating that the bill would inflate insurance and business costs.

“PIFF member companies believe that people who suffer damages through the wrongful action of others should be fairly compensated for their losses. Florida law currently provides access to redress and means for full compensation and should not be changed to suit special interests,” he said.

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Bring on the orange juice: Denise Grimsley schedules breakfast fundraiser for March 7

It’s never too early in the day to start fundraising.

Sen. Denise Grimsley is scheduled to hold a fundraising reception for her 2018 bid for Agriculture Commissioner at 7:30 a.m. on March 7 at Florida Finance Strategies, 111-B East College Avenue in Tallahassee.

The reception, according to a copy of the invitation, is hosted by Sens. Aaron Bean, Dennis Baxley, Rob Bradley, Anitere Flores, George Gainer, Bill Galvano, Rene Garcia, Jack Latvala, Tom Lee, Debbie Mayfield, David Simmons, Wilton Simpson, Kelli Stargel, and Greg Steube.

The breakfast fundraiser comes just hours before the start of the 2017 Legislative Session.

A Sebring Republican, Grimsley was first elected to the House in 2004, before heading to the Senate in 2012.

She is currently a hospital administrator for Florida Hospital Wauchula and Lake Placid, and has served as vice president and chief operating officer of her family business, Grimsley Oil Company, as well as being involved in the citrus and ranching industry. She’s a member of the Peace River Valley and Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

Grimsley filed to for the statewide office earlier this month, and has already lined up the backing of former state Sen. JD Alexander. And several Central Florida agriculture industry leaders appear to be lining up behind her, with many listed on an invitation for a fundraiser at Florida’s Natural Grove House in Lake Wales next week.

She isn’t the only member of the Legislature eyeing the agriculture post. Last week, Rep. Matt Caldwell told FloridaPolitics.com he intends to file to run for the seat later this summer.

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Rick Scott to court: Throw out Richard Corcoran’s Lottery lawsuit

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

A Leon County circuit judge held a brief hearing Thursday over Corcoran’s lawsuit that maintains the Florida Lottery broke the law when it approved a more than $700-million contract with IGT Global Solutions to help run lottery games.

Corcoran’s lawsuit contends the contract is illegal because it exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

Barry Richard, an attorney hired to represent the state’s lottery secretary, argued the agency followed the law because the contract states it is contingent on state funding.

Richard told reporters after the hearing that if the Legislature “doesn’t like it, they don’t have to fund it.”

The case could get decided quickly. Judge Karen Gievers scheduled a March 6 trial.

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VIDEO: Lawmakers, supporters speak out on school recess

Sen. Anitere Flores, Rep. Rene “Coach P” Plasencia, and a throng of “recess moms” spoke with reporters Thursday in support of legislation that would mandate school recess.

The Senate Education Committee this week voted unanimously to approve this year’s bill (SB 78). Its House companion (HB 67) has not yet heard a hearing.

It requires school districts to provide at least 20 minutes of recess each day to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

This may well be the year the bill passes the Legislature. A version was OK’d by the House last year but died in the Senate because then-Sen. John Legg refused to hear the measure in the Pre-K-12 Education Committee he chaired.

That was despite the fact former Senate President Andy Gardiner supported the bill.

“He did not believe in the policy and he did not hear the bill,” Gardiner said in an INFLUENCE magazine interview last year. “He felt, and it’s legitimate, that that’s a local issue and we should allow local school districts to make that decision.

“Some said I should have forced him to hear that (bill),” Gardiner said. “I talked to him about but ultimately it was his decision. He’s the chair. That was just my style.”

A Periscope video of Thursday’s news conference in the Capitol’s 4th floor rotunda is below.

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House panel votes to raise the bar for proposed constitutional amendments

A lively debate on governing principles broke out Thursday as a House committee voted unanimously to ask the voters to raise the threshold for amending the Florida Constitution.

HJR 321 would require approval by 66 2/3 percent of the voters to change the state’s foundational document. At present, that requires 60 percent approval.

Sponsor Rick Roth, a freshman Republican from Loxahatchee, acknowledge his proposal would make it harder to change Florida’s basic law.

“I watch politics very closely, and have for 30 years, and it seems like it’s becoming, more and more, who has the money to put something on the ballot,” he said following the 14-0 vote by the Oversight, Transparency, & Administration Subcommittee.

“This is a great opportunity for debate, actually,” Roth said.

As his proposal advances through the legislative and, potentially, electoral process, “people will become more informed, I hope, of what kind of government we have and how important the Constitution is,” he said.

The proposal advances to the Rules & Policy and full Government Accountability committees. There’s a Senate companion bill — SJR 866 by Dennis Baxley. 

The change would go to the voters in 2018 if approved by three-fifth of the House and Senate. Of course, more than 60 percent of the voters would have to agree to raise the bar against themselves.

Critics argued the measure would weaken voters’ control over government.

“Why are we continuing to make it harder for our citizens to get something on the ballot in Florida?” wondered Kelly Quintero, of the Florida League of Women Voters.

“We have the most stringent citizens’ initiative in the United States,” said Gail Marie Perry, of the Communications Workers of America.

Medical marijuana activist Melissa Villar called the proposal “an affront to democracy.”

In fact, the medical marijuana initiative on last year’s ballot would have met the proposed threshold — it won 71 percent of the vote in November.

Republican Cary Pigman said there should be a high bar to changing the Constitution. Unlike the legislative process, which allows for changes as bills proceed through the committee process, proposed amendment language is fixed, he said.

“We are a republic of elected representatives,” Pigman said. “I stand for election every two years, and anyone can run against me. And I’m term-limited. That is where the people are heard.”

Blaise Ingoglia echoed the point. “The people’s will is electing representatives to come up here to represent them in our districts,” he said.

“Amending the Constitution should be hard, and it should not be taken lightly. I would submit that amending our Constitution right now is a little too easy.”

Katie Edwards, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, argued the Constitution has become cluttered with provisions the Legislature finds ways not to observe. “That is the real affront to our democracy,” she said.

Still, “after going back and reading this cluttered mess, I’ll support you today,” Edwards told Roth.

In other action, the panel voted, 14-0, for HB 397, creating an exemption in the Sunshine Law for information that would identify victims of sexual harassment in state government.

The subcommittee also voted to tighten internal auditing controls and oversight at local agencies; and to extend Sunshine Law exemptions for Department of Citrus research, peer review panels at two programs researching cancer and other serious ailments, and Social Security and other personal-identification information among unclaimed property administered by the Department of Financial Services.

Background on those bills is available here.

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House gambling bill gets thumbs up on first look

With its chair saying he wants to “freeze” gambling in the state, a House gambling panel on Thursday cleared that chamber’s overhaul bill, including a renewed blackjack agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d the measure (PCB TGC 17-01) on a 10-5 party-line vote.

But the bill, which isn’t yet assigned to another committee, differs greatly from the Senate’s gambling legislation. Its proposal (SB 8) now is cleared for consideration by the full chamber after a 14-2 vote in the Appropriations Committee, also Thursday.

The House is looking to contract gambling overall; the Senate would expand some gambling opportunities though bill sponsor Bill Galvano has said it contracts gambling overall.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the House panel’s chair, was hopeful about reaching compromise, though he made clear the Senate would have to vastly change its position.

“I think their expansion and where they’re going with it would be a non-starter here,” the St. Cloud Republican told reporters after the meeting. 

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games,” and the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines. No Casinos, the anti-gambling expansion group, supports the House bill.

Moreover, the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money – $3 billion over seven years – would go to education, split three ways among “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools,” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But state Rep. Jared Moskowitz criticized the bill for doing exactly what the House’s GOP majority says it hates: Picking winners and losers.

“The winners are the Seminoles, and the losers are everybody else,” he said. The Coral Springs Democrat had tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to delete a legal requirement that racetracks run live races to also offer other gambling, like poker.

This is not free market—this is a corporate mandate,” he said of the legislation. Moskowitz also pointed out the many gambling policy conflicts between the chambers.

“What are we doing here? I have no idea, actually,” Moskowitz said. “…We’re debating something we know is already dead.”

State Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the panel’s Democratic Ranking Member, suggested that the bill’s funding mechanism would disproportionately benefit privately-run charter schools.  

“It’s not corporate welfare” for charter schools, La Rosa told reporters.

Where the money goes exactly isn’t “solid yet,” he added, but “who’s actually benefiting is the student (who doesn’t have to go) to a failing school.”

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Appropriations committee votes to OK gambling bill, now cleared for Senate floor

A wide-sweeping gambling bill is now ready to be heard by the full Senate when the 2017 Legislative Session kicks off next month, after it cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning.

The bill (SB 8), sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, ratifies the 2015 Seminole Compact, subject to the approval of amendments to conform the agreement to provisions outlined in the bill and other actions to be taken by the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida, and would expand the number of facilities where slot machines can be operated.

“Florida is a diverse state and our constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming. This legislation does not attempt to make value judgments about the private activities of free, taxpaying Floridians, instead it presents a comprehensive approach to regulating a voter-approved industry that has contributed billions of dollars to our economy for education, health care and infrastructure, while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Floridians over the course of nearly 100 years,” said Galvano in a statement after the vote.

The bill passed 14-2, with Sens. Aaron Bean and Kelli Stargel voting against it.

“I don’t feel like we need to go down this path,” said Bean, who commended Galvano for his effort. “I see us going on the continued road of a slippery slope.”

The measure was amended Thursday to add a bingo provision for charitable organizations. Under the new section, veterans’ organizations may conduct instant bingo using electronic tickets instead of paper tickets.

The amended bill also appears to outlaw advance deposit wagering, a form of gambling in which the bettor must fund his account being allowed to place betters. The amendment makes it a third degree felony to accept those wagers on horse races, but not on dog races.

It also toughens standards for race animal doping; changes the name of the Office of Amusements, which would regulate fantasy sports, to the Office of Contest Amusements; and gives regulators no more than 45 days to approve “rules for a new authorized game submitted by a licensed cardroom or provide the cardroom with a list of deficiencies as to those rules.”

Several members expressed hesitation about what the bill could mean for the state’s future, before voting for it. Sens. Anitere Flores and Rob Bradley were among those who said they faced a difficult decision, but felt inaction was no longer an option.

“This is a difficult issue for me,” said Bradley. “If I could do one thing to wave a magic wand in our state government, I would get rid of the lottery and move on in a different direction on gaming, because I think Florida is about something different. We’re about beaches and sunshine. Not gaming. But ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a magic wand, none of us do.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the measure a jobs bill and said he hoped it will be “one more place where the Senate comes down strong for jobs.”

The House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d its own gambling bill Thursday.

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Lottery fight between Gov. Scott and House could be costly

Florida could spend up to $100,000 in the skirmish between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Corcoran last week asked a court to block a contract the Florida Lottery approved last fall. The contract with IGT Global Solutions is worth more than $700 million.

Corcoran’s lawsuit maintains lottery officials broke the law because they approved a contract that exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

The Florida Lottery this week hired attorney Barry Richard with the Greenberg Traurig firm to represent them in the legal battle. Richard represented President George W. Bush during the presidential election recount battle in 2000.

Richard’s contract calls for him to be paid up to $60,000 for a trial and an additional $40,000 for any appeal. The Florida House is using lawyers who work for the state on the case.

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Rick Scott says fellow Republicans — he’s looking at you, Mr. Speaker — are spreading fake news

Gov. Rick Scott is now saying that his fellow Republicans in the Florida House are using “fake news” to justify their plan to scrap the state’s economic development agency.

Scott used his campaign Twitter account on Wednesday to distribute a video critical of House Speaker Richard Corcoran and House Republicans. The video labels Corcoran a “career politician” who wasted money by having the House produce a video that trashed programs championed by Scott.

The House video released last week blasted Visit Florida, the agency that promotes tourism, and Enterprise Florida, the organization that uses taxpayer money to lure companies to the state. The House is considering a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida.

Scott’s video points out that the House criticized incentives handed out before Scott was governor.

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DCF files: Tony Dungy, adoption, false reports and a new trend – falling asleep in cars, high and with kids

It’s another interesting day in the Florida child welfare business and not a bit has anything to do with a Department of Children and Families (DCF) child protection investigator being arrested. That’s good news.

Starting with the positive, the Tallahassee Democrat reported Tony Dungy was in the state capital to speak at a DCF Black History Month Celebration, giving a 15-minute talk to those in attendance. He serves as a spokesman for the Tampa-based nonprofit, All-Pro Dad.

“I think that’s what this month is all about,” he said, the Democrat wrote. “Black history month, celebrating children and families. One child at a time. One family at a time. One step at a time. You never know what that step is going to be, where it can go, what it’s going to lead to.”

Moving on, we have another positive story out of Tallahassee by ABC affiliate WTXL, which reported Tuesday that two foster children are going through the adoption process out of 32 foster children they reported in a special series.

Three-year-old Tenley and her sister 5-year-old Taylyn are set to be adopted by Greg and Nancy Brannen, says WTXL. Though the process is taking time, the children are in their care right now.

“Every day I come home, I open the door and they’re like, ‘Daddy, daddy,’” the prospective father told the station. “They’re such a joy.”

Next, things get weird.

A woman – Jessica Elizabeth Combee, from Westville, near the border with Alabama – appeared in court last week on a violation of probation charge in connection to a 2014 arrest in which she filed a whopping 28 false reports to the state’s abuse registry website, according to the Chipley Paper.

At the time, the newspaper reported Tuesday, Combee told investigators she did it to “create havoc.”

Filing of a false report of abuse is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison with DCF reserving the right to impose a fine not exceeding $10,000 for each violation.

Getting worse …

In Sarasota County, a woman pulled up to a Venice gas station with a one-year-old child in the backseat and fell asleep, reported the Bradenton Herald Wednesday. Kathryn Miller, 30, then woke up, went into the store – leaving the child in the car, which was parked at pump No. 16, and it was around that time someone had called law enforcement.

When the cops showed up on the scene, she was asked to show them where the child was and they looked in the car, finding a Mason jar in the back with a marijuana bud in it. When later searched, Miller was found to have another three small baggies of pot in her purse, too.

The child was taken into custody by DCF authorities.

She was arrested by sheriff’s deputies on charges of child neglect, possession of marijuana under 20 grams and possession of drug paraphernalia, writes the Herald. She was released Sunday on a $6,000 bond.

And last, but not least, we bring you the case of Matthew McRee, 36, and Christina Mattessino, 30, were sleeping in a silver Cadillac with a child in a soaked diaper in the backseat of the car, according to the Spanish version of the Bradenton Herald (hit translate at the top right of your computer screen when the option box appears).

Typically, as is the case in these situations, McRee seemed disoriented and didn’t have a driver’s license, the newspaper reported Tuesday. But that wasn’t the end of it for McRee, who has a lengthy arrest history, per public records.

According to the Herald, “McRee was taken to Sarasota County jail on several counts, including child negligence, drunken driving, possession of heroin and marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving under suspended license. Mattessino, meanwhile, was taken to jail on $ 17,000 bond, facing child malpractice charges and possessing drug paraphernalia.”

The toddler was handed over to close relatives and the incident was reported to DCF, the Herald said.

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