Product liability and tort reform

“Woman Sues Over Finger in Chili”

“Perfume Company Ordered to Pay Millions”

“Restaurant Sued Over Scalding Coffee”

We’ve all seen these headlines and many others like them in the news lately. Sensational headlines, false and frivolous lawsuits against businesses and the prices consumers pay for products and services are combining to fuel local, state and national efforts toward tort reform.

Gov. Jeb Bush says that “lawsuit abuse is one of the greatest threats to Florida’s robust business climate.” He recently joined the Florida Justice Reform Institute in advocating for measures to “rein in lawsuit abuse and bring fairness, common sense and predictability to our civil justice system.”

Business owners throughout our state are paying high premiums for product liability insurance because they fear being hit with a large jury verdict that could send their business — and their family — into bankruptcy.

And Florida consumers are paying higher prices for all the goods and services we purchase everyday — from a fast-food hamburger to a new car — because of the cost of product liability and other lawsuits.

Of course, some lawsuits are legitimate and deserve to be compensated. Businesses do sometimes offer substandard products and services, and people are injured — physically and/or economically — and deserve to be compensated. But those honest victims are victimized by a court system that is clogged beyond its capacity by false and frivolous lawsuits.

It is in the best interest of consumers and business owners that our court system be able to weed out false and frivolous lawsuits to maintain the public’s trust in the justice system and guarantee access to the courts for real victims.

The recommendations by Gov. Bush and the Florida Justice Reform Institute cover changes across several areas.

Joint and several liability. Change the law that punishes a person or corporation based upon its ability to pay instead of its degree of fault.

Product liability. Eliminate liability for retailers who had nothing to do with the design or manufacture of a product.

Premises liability. Exclude property owners when a third party intentionally hurts someone on their property.

Vicarious liability. Follow the precedent set by several other states and adopt “negligent entrustment” as the law, instead of automatically making the owner of a vehicle liable when someone else drives it and gets in an accident.

Limiting class action lawsuits. The goal of class action lawsuits should be compensation for those hurt.

Asbestos litigation. Ensure that those truly impacted by exposure to asbestos are compensated in a timely manner. A study found that 65 percent of total dollars paid to plaintiffs in asbestos litigation have gone to people who are not ill.

Limit venue shopping. A reputation for awarding excessive judgments should not be the reason a case is heard in a particular court.

Abuse of Amendment 3. Last year, 64 percent of Floridians voted to limit lawyers’ fees and make sure damage awards get to injured patients and their families in medical malpractice cases.

Reversing ‘zone of risk’ decisions. Under these court rulings, law enforcement officers have been held civilly liable for accidents that occur while they are in pursuit of dangerous suspects.

All business owners — from the smallest mom-and-pop operations to the largest corporations — should learn about product liability and the efforts to reform our tort laws. Honest business people should not have fear that their life’s work will be gone in a flash because of a multimillion-dollar jury verdict in a frivolous case.

William R. Scherer Jr. is managing partner of Conrad & Scherer, which specializes in health care law and complex commercial litigation. Reach him at 954-462-5500 or www.conradscherer.com.

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