Revisiting Florida’s Tort Reform debates: Many Conservatives have now shown true colors on human life.

In the late 1990’s conservatives throughout the country were pushing Tort Reform as a larger scheme to “defund the left.” Florida was an epicenter of activity as Jeb Bush’s Republican Party made breaking the Trial Lawyers and Teacher’s Union (via merit pay, school vouchers and other education “reforms”) the priorities of having complete control of State Government after the 1998 General Election.

The goal was to ensure the two groups most closely associated with funding leftist causes or campaigns would be financially starved. In the case of the trial bar, if attorney’s that practice that sort of law had less disposable income because caps on damages were low, then less money would flow into the campaigns and causes that opposed corporatism and conservatism.

The GOP-led House and Senate had passed a Tort Reform bill with bipartisan support in 1998, but Governor Chiles had vetoed it. In 1999, nothing was stopping passage. Republicans almost universally backed it as did many Democrats. Some Republicans put up a fight, but most rolled over. Very few Democrats seemed to care one way or another in the House. In the Senate they were better organized and fought but eventually lost.

In the following years, the GOP-led Legislature would with much help from Democrats looking to suck up to those in power pass one piece of legal reform after another, chipping away at the ability of consumers and ordinary citizens to hold business and insurance companies accountable. Many Democrats stood tall in fighting this with some wayward Republicans. But most Republicans and too many Democrats were all to anxious to pass any and all legal reform.

By Chris Potter – Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel, CC BY 2.0,

Why is this important now? At the time I fought a lonely battle with many fellow Democrats – I believed people would die because of legal reform. Some Democrats agreed with me but others told me how arrogant the trial lawyers were or that businesses would leave Florida if we didn’t pass reforms. I was even told insurance companies were more honest than lawyers by one or two people.

The key lobbying group was as it is so often in Florida’s history, Associated Industries of Florida (AIF). Very few legislators in either party wanted to cross AIF.

Many Democrats had in reality, been bought off by the insurance industry or the lobbyists for large corporations. They didn’t care about consumer protection or working class people that might be victims of corporate abuse. They were Democrats because of social issues or because they were running for liberal districts in southeast Florida…areas that are relatively affluent. Most of these legislators were selected in primaries and faced minimal GOP opposition. So funding for a primary was critical and they made the bet that corporations and the right would help them more.

They saw trial lawyers as arrogant and gave no credit to the fact most attorney’s practicing the types of law that were impacted by the legislation have huge out-of-pocket expenses they must undertake to even take most cases. If lawyers were looking to make money, they’d become corporate attorney’s or practice real estate law, in my opinion.

Some Republicans (most notably Mike Fasano) regularly voted against efforts to reform torts, medical malpractice, product liability, etc. But the vast majority of GOPers openly cheered the idea of putting lawyers out of business and limiting how much those who made defective products, acted irresponsibly or even killed people would have to pay in damages.

I believed then that many corporations would calculate it was cheaper to kill people than to make safe products, if caps on damages and legal fees were so low that they could get away with it. I said it at the time and got laughed at or told I was nuts.

What we’ve seen the last month as conservatives push to reopen the economy during COVID-19 and talk openly about “sacrificing” lives for economic prosperity. They are unashamed of it and talk about the “greater good,” etc. American capitalism revolves around money first – human capital is important to keep the machine running, but worker’s rights are to be limited, unions crushed and consumers should not have recourse if a product or service isn’t as advertised.

The last month has reminded me the fights of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were actually, if framed properly fought on the same lines as today. Yet too many just didn’t see it that way, and alas the consumers and citizens of this state have paid for it.

My simple takeaway is I was right on this issue and in the future those on the left MUST resist any attempts to curtail protections for consumers and ordinary citizens. The right has unmasked itself in the last month – now we know lives don’t matter to them.

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