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Chamber laments the rise of trial bar’s influence with Florida Legislature

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The business community believes trial lawyers hold the upper hand in the Legislature for the first time in years.

The business community is not happy about that.

“Their bills are on rocket fuel and are moving through the process,” Mark Delegal, a partner at Holland & Knight, said during a panel discussion at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual Capitol Days symposium.

“We are sounding the alarm about what is going on. Let’s make this just a two-year anomaly. We’ve got to lock down as a community, as businesses, and stop this aggression that’s going on, and move back to where we are on the offense.”

Delegal participated in the discussion with Steve Kopnik, chairman and CEO of Beall’s Inc.; Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and Quentin Kendall, vice president for government affairs for CSX Transportation.

Business priorities this year include workers’ compensation reform and assignment of benefits abuse.

But the panel also spent time decrying legislation that would give plaintiffs the opportunity to receive prejudgment interest on legal claims. The Chamber produced a video to warn the business community against the measure.

The bill stalled last week during a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, but isn’t dead.

Kendall lamented that tort reform seems to be languishing in the Legislature, following good years beginning under former Gov. Jeb Bush and a subsequent equilibrium with trial lawyers.

“This prejudgment interest bill symbolically represents the turning of the tide, and the ongoing march of the trial lawyers to decrease the already low, 44th, ranking we have in legal climate in the United States,” Kendall said.

The bill would discourage defendants from fighting meritless claims, and defendants couldn’t recover their litigation expenses if they prevail, he said.

He surveyed the landscape. In the House, the bill’s sponsor is Shawn Harrison, who holds an “A” rating from the Chamber. It went through the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Heather Fitzenhagen, “works for John Morgan,” the plaintiffs’ attorney.

“This isn’t the Onion, folks,” Kendall said.

The House bill passed out of that committee on an 11-4 vote, despite efforts by “our champion there,” Jay Fant.

“Jay said, ‘Quentin, they’re laughing at us. They’re just laughing at us now.’ ”

Even in the Senate, “we needed two Democratic senators to hold this thing up,” Kendall said.

“There were no questions about how this would affect the business community,” he said.

“We need to understand what this represents. This is a slippery slope of where the future is in our position vis a vis the Florida Legislature unless we’re able to stop this and turn the tide.”

Delegal recalled a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and trial lawyers would try for one or two pieces of legislation each year, retreating when Republicans captured both chambers.

“The last 20 years, we’ve been on the offense. We’ve not always successfully prosecuted our bills, but many times we have.”

Now, “we have seen a radical sea change in just this year,” he said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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