Florida Faces Blitz of New Civil Cases
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Sending monthly new case filings 127% above past monthly record (from May 2021), Florida trial lawyers scrambled to initiate paperwork for lawsuits when word spread that DeSantis would enact a tort reform law as legislation began heading to his desk. Taking effect immediately, the law was enacted March 24.
The tort reform provides sweeping changes to Florida’s legal framework previously dubbed a judicial hellhole. It stops plaintiffs’ attorneys from introducing fictitious and inflated medical bills at trial.
It also contains three top priorities the Florida Trucking Association identified and lobbied to include: transparency of medical damages, modified comparative negligence and halving to two years the statute of limitations.
The actual triple-digit figure for March in new cases filings in Florida’s electronic court system portal to circuit court clerks in 67 counties was much higher than past estimates of 80,000 to 100,000 new cases.
Patrick Manderfield, deputy communications director of the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said the unprecedented volume of new cases filed in anticipation enacting House Bill 837 caused a delay in processing cases in some Clerk of Court offices. The record numbers of cases strained court resources and reverberating throughout the court system — impacting normal operations (opening files, processing court records and reviewing/referring cases to appropriate courts and judges), Manderfield said.
A backlog of cases mushroomed. Some clerks authorized overtime and extended office hours to cope with the excess workload, but others in many counties were unable to make extra accommodations due to budget constraints.
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“Clerks’ current funding model relies heavily on revenue sources that fluctuate dramatically,” Manderfield explained. “They depend heavily on fines, fees and court costs — especially civil traffic citations. Clerks retain only about half of the fines and fees they collect, with 46% distributed to [the state] general revenue and outside trust funds.”
Other budget hits are expected due to a technicality in how the court revenue system works. The court likely will be unable to use all of the filing fees from those 280,122 new cases since most of the work will occur next year, and the court cannot defer fee revenue to the next fiscal year. Instead any unused filing fees from March will morph into a cumulative excess revenue category for distribution to state coffers.
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“Because these cases were filed in a one-week period, the clerks will only retain one-half of the revenue as opposed to retaining the full amount of the filing fees for all of these cases. Many of these cases might not start until the next fiscal year, but because they were filed and the filing fee was paid this year, clerks will process them with essentially half the filing fee they would have normally received because of the timing,” Manderfield said.
To alleviate the revenue shortfall, court clerks worked with staff at the State Courts Administrator, state legislators and others “to discuss the impact on the court system and address any challenges involved,” he added.
Lawmakers pushed through HB 977 allowing court clerks to access funding that would normally flow to the state’s general revenue fund. The measure was sent June 12 to DeSantis. If approved, it will take effect July 1.
Insurers also are coping with the flurry of activity from trial lawyers.
Logan McFaddin, vice president of Florida government relations for American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said, “Insurers are working through the latest surge in lawsuits, but with so much litigation still pending, it could delay the anticipated positive impact of the recent reforms.”
McFaddin commended DeSantis and the Florida state Legislature for their leadership in tackling legal system abuse and excessive lawsuits.
“Before the reforms went into effect, billboard lawyers — worried only about their own payday — rushed to file hundreds of thousands of lawsuits in the state,” she said. “Over time, the legal system abuse reforms are expected to help stabilize the market and lower costs, but it should not be expected to happen immediately.”