A Florida law intended to protect nursing homes and other long-term care facilities is restricting access to courts for victims of negligence, critics say. Lawmakers passed the litigation to prevent COVID-19 lawsuits from overwhelming the healthcare system, but victims aren’t getting their day in court.
Florida’s SB 72
The state legislature passed SB 72, known as Civil Liability for Damages Relating to COVID-19, in March 2021. The law has several components outlining requirements for bringing a COVID-19 liability case and putting a substantial burden of proof on plaintiffs.
The law does not ban these lawsuits, but it does put more stringent requirements in place. It raised the bar for which COVID-19 liability cases the courts can accept.
This law, shielding car centers, requires that plaintiffs show a specific individual intended to harm a resident who contracted COVID-19. Alternatively, they must show that the individual showed a conscious disregard for the resident’s life.
Plaintiffs must also get a signed statement, made under oath, from a doctor. The statement must show that the actions of the defendant directly led to the resident’s infection with COVID-19. While other states passed similar laws, Florida’s burden placed on victims is the highest.
COVID-19 in Florida Nursing Homes
The law was intended to stop frivolous lawsuits and to prevent the system from being overwhelmed. Many critics see this as unfair to the victims. The state has had some of the highest rates of COVID-19, with major surges occurring at the end of the summer and into the fall.
Florida’s nursing home residents have faired particularly poorly during the pandemic. Florida led all states in nursing home staff and resident deaths from COVID-19 at the end of August. More than a third of all deaths from the virus in the state occurred in nursing homes. The state also has some of the lowest rates of vaccination among staff in these facilities.
Barring Victim Access to Court
According to the Florida Health Care Association, 80% of nursing homes in the state received multiple notices of intent to sue before SB 72 passed. Since the law passed, homes have not received any notices. This means that many people who have cases are unable to sue for negligence.
Lawyers and law firms across the state report receiving inquiries about lawsuits against nursing homes. Many, the lawyers say, had valid claims against the facilities. They have had to turn these people away because of the new law.
The operators of nursing homes insist the law is necessary to prevent an influx of litigation and necessary shutdowns over the related costs. Advocates, victims, and their families criticize the law. They say it bars access to the courts for genuine victims of negligent care.
SB 72 is set to expire in March of 2022. Proponents of the law want the legislature to renew it, while critics would like to see it expire. So far, there has been no comment from the governor as to whether he supports extending the bill. What will happen next remains to be seen.