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How South Florida Courts Are Adjusting to ‘Tort Reform’ Law 6 Months Later

September 19, 2023 at 01:48 PM
Michael A. Mora

South Florida courts experienced, and reacted to, a surge of cases before the law went immediately into effect

Leading up to and after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the tort reform legislation into law, South Florida courts were overwhelmed with an influx of filings.

That includes Broward Chief Circuit Judge Jack Tuter, who warned in March that the court could potentially initiate “drastic measures,” such as to “stay the prosecution of all newly filed cases for a period of time” or adding a new day for motion calendar. But filings dipped in April and the court oversaw over 40 more trials in the first six months of the year versus the prior year.

“It was an aberration with lawyers trying to file cases prior to the changes in the law,” Tuter said in an interview. “And then after that, we’ve been pretty much steady the same way it was before the tort reform bill went into effect.”

Miami-Dade Chief Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie saw judicial caseloads rise from 400 cases to over 1,300 cases per judge, according to their data, which was far above the around 540 case increase per judge in the Palm Beach Circuit Court, for instance.

“The good news is we have a lot of case management techniques,” Sayfie said. “We started blind filing in county court civil, which has helped. I added some county court judges to the civil division, so that helped there.”

The tort reform law, House Bill 837-Civil Remedies, replaced the pure comparative negligence system with a modified comparative negligence system.

Proponents of the law said it created uniform standards to help jury members in civil trials determine damages and medical claims in cases of death or severe personal injury. The law standardized evidence for medical claims, and regulated “bad faith” actions to expedite dispute resolution. The law reduced the statute of limitations on general negligence to two years.

However, plaintiff attorneys have overwhelmingly taken issue with the law’s elimination of payments to plaintiffs, if a jury finds them to be 51% at fault. As a result, attorneys have said insurers will try to exert leverage in new lawsuits to decrease settlement monetary value.

April Dahl, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Fort Lauderdale, had focused her practice on tort litigation for the last two decades, and said that the case volume for her insurance clients spiked leading up to the March 23 deadline before the new law immediately went into effect. However, the lawsuits largely exhibited a certain legal strategy thereafter.

“They would file a bare-bones lawsuit, maybe not naming all the defendants, just naming Jane Doe to get something on file, knowing they had 120 days per Florida Statute to serve any party,” Dahl said. “They waited until recently to file an amended complaint to properly name all of the parties and assert causes of actions.”

Palm Beach Chief Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley said, generally, it would not surprise him if lawyers “got in some barebones pleadings” because they were “burning the midnight oil to get these cases filed before the new law went into effect,” but it is not something that the court tracks. Both Broward and Miami-Dade provided similar responses.

“In Palm Beach County, we’ve had about 7,000 cases filed above the norm,” Kelley said. “It is going to cause some issues in terms of getting them in line with case management, but they will work themselves out.”

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