Controversial nursing home lawsuit reform brings mixed messages from trial attorneys

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The Florida Legislature is considering a measure this session that seeks to regulate lawsuits arising over nursing home care.

Attorney Cal Warriner, in an blog post for the Tallahassee-based law Searcy Denney law firm, says the bill “would protect nursing home owners while doing nothing for the elderly who are under their care.

While it is not uncommon to criticize any particular tort reform bill, what make the blog post noteworthy is that another attorney shareholder for Searcy Denney, Jimmy Gustafson, is a member of the FJA executive committee.

A Senate committee recently advanced SB 670, filed by Republican Sen. John Thrasher who had once represented the Florida Medical Association.

If passed, Warriner writes that residents can only sue nursing home owners and employees in cases of neglect and abuse. Passive investors are immune from litigation, and the bill makes it more difficult to recover punitive damages from wrongdoers.

Thrasher contends that shielding nursing home owners spurs investment and allows them to stay in business, something he says is ultimately beneficial for the elderly. Landlords, property owners and banks have nothing to do with quality of nursing home care.

There are some trade-offs with the bill. The proposal’s language gives the state the ability to pull a license from nursing home operators if an owner fails to pay any damage awards within 60 days.

In addition, families have the right to access medical records of the victim without setting up a costly family trust first to see those records, which is required under current law.

Passive investors or private-equity firms typically own nursing homes in Florida, giving many owners a degree of protection to the assets of license holders, but often at the expense of administrators and nursing staff, many of whom work for minimum wage.

Families for Better Care, which advocates the estimated 72,000 Floridians currently in nursing home care, are vocal opponents of the bill.

Families for Better Care director Brian Lee told the Miami Herald that the “is a shield for nursing home owners protecting their profits over patients.”

Although the bill is indeed divisive — while the FBC denounces it, the AARP also supports it — a series of “mixed messages” from trial attorneys, seemingly coming from the same firm, only adds to the controversy. 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.