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Florida Business Owners Would No Longer Bear Burden of Proof in Slip-and-Fall Lawsuits

March 8, 2010 - 6:00pm

Legislation moving the burden of proof from retailers to injured plaintiffs passed the House Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council and will be brought to the House floor, but Republicans and Democrats alike agree the bill still needs work.

Claim payments for slip and fall incidents in Florida have been on the rise, far exceeding the growth of retail revenues, according to lawmakers. Slip and fall claims totalled around $10 million in 2000 and increased to almost $30 million in 2008. While claim payments were more than 0.06 percentof total retail revenue in Florida in 2000, in 2008 they totaled 0.12 percent. Claim payments in the other states in the region never exceeded 0.03 percent during the same time period.

We must reverse this alarming trend, said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, the chief sponsor of the bill.

But, critics of the bill questioned the bills merits. They also said injured people are unprepared to gather the kind of information the bill envisions.

The difficulty in these cases is if any constituent falls, they are not looking on what they fell on, said Paul Anderson of the Florida Justice Association. They are not looking for witnesses. They are not taking names. The business holds that.

Ken Sobel, a director of the Florida Justice Association, attacked the statistics that Aubuchon cited. Expenses related to falls are not increasing, Sobel said. When you break it down, retailers are paying 10 cents per customer from these accidents. There isnt a problem here.

Protect the safety of seniors and retirees in this state and vote against the bill, said Barbara DeVane, speaking on behalf of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, urging lawmakers to reject the bill for "the safety of seniors and retirees" in Florida.

Aubuchon said that his bill would restore the previous standard in Florida for slip and fall cases. Before the current policy was enacted, Floridians injured in a slip and fall incident at a retail storehad to prove that the business owners knew of the hazards that caused the accident. That changed in 2001 when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Owens vs. Publix that the burden of proof was on retailers. In 2002, the Legislature adopted legislation that accorded with the court's ruling.

So called "slip and fall" cases are based on the claim that property owners or retailers were negligent in causing an accident leading to an injury.

An alliance of business groups have supported the return to placing the burden on plaintiffs.

Business have the same obligation under the new bill as they did before 2001, said Adam Babington of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Also supporting the bill are Florida Retail Association, the Florida Justice Reform Institute, the Associated Industries of Florida, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The council approved the bill, with only Fetterman and Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation voting against it. Members who backedthe legislation warned Aubuchon that the bill needed work to pass the floor of the House. They agreed the bill needed specific provisions on retailers obligations in keeping evidence and records during the slip and fall cases.

The obligation of care that owners have to you does not change, said Aubuchon in answer to questions about whether his bill would drastically alter the rights patrons have in a store. The costs of defending and litigating slip and fall have changed.

The evidence is clear, said Aubuchon. Looking at the costs of defending slip and fall in Florida compared to other states, the difference is the law, not the care retailers maintain.

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