Investors in Florida nursing homes would be shielded from lawsuits when residents are abused or neglected under broad new provisions authorized in a bill the Florida House sent to the governor on Wednesday.
The bill, SB 670, passed 109-7 after passing the Senate last week. The measure has the backing of AARP of Florida and the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers. But it was vigorously opposed by elder advocates and Tampa-based trial lawyer Jim Wilkes, who has successfully sued dozens of nursing homes that have attempted to shield their assets.
The National Organization for Women Florida Chapter and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, and union groups representing the health care workers in nursing homes, are among the groups that warned the measure will not only hurt residents of nursing homes but subject individual staff members to lawsuits while owners are shielded.
“The Florida Legislature just handed the nursing home industry a ‘get out of jail free card’ in cases of abuse or neglect,’’ said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, a non-profit that advocates for senior rights and is heavily funded by Wilkes. “If enacted, the nefarious operators, those who cut staffing and care budgets just to maximize profits, will be exonerated from ALL wrongdoing.”
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He predicted that nursing homes will take advantage of this new shield on liability and warned that “care that’s bad now is about to get a whole lot worse.”
The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, would stop Wilkes’ strategy in Florida by preventing “passive investors” from being named in a lawsuit unless a court determines they have had an active role. Wilkes contends the bill is written too broadly to describe who is considered a passive investor and restricts discovery in such a way that would make it more difficult to persuade a judge that there is a link between the investor and the nursing home.
The Florida Health Care Association, with represents nursing homes, has argued that it is impossible for all nursing home operators to hide all its assets and this will not stop anyone from getting sued.
“This doesn’t make it any easier or harder to get sued as a direct care giver. This is simply protection for the passive investor,’’ said J. Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.
The Florida Justice Association, the trial lawyers association to which Wilkes is not a member, endorsed the legislation after fighting similar proposals for the three previous sessions.
In return, it won new language that will make it easier for residents of nursing homes, and their relatives and lawyers, to get documents without having to establish an estate.
Wilkes believes the trade-off is for trial lawyers to file more frequent lawsuits that produce smaller settlements, while the industry gets a stronger shield against reporting how it spends its money. The Florida Justice Association denies that is its goal.
The legislation also shows the power of political contributions to buy into the session’s agenda. The nursing home industry spent $2.4 million on political campaigns in 2012 and has contributed another $903,000 on legislative campaigns so far this cycle. Wilkes and McHugh, by contrast, have given $18,000 this election cycle to legislative campaigns.
In a statement, Reed urged the governor to sign the bill quickly because it would take effect upon becoming law.
“Gov. Scott understands how excessive litigation can destroy investors’ interest in creating new facilities and new jobs in Florida’s vital nursing home industry,’’ he said. “We look forward to working with his Administration to implement this new law to improve the lives of Florida’s elders.”