Central Florida courts inundated with civil cases as tort reform bill becomes law
By Christopher Cann
Central Florida courts are in the throes of a massive surge of cases that were filed in anticipation of the bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday that protects insurers and businesses from lawsuits.
The dramatic increase has affected circuits across the state, leading staffers to work overtime and administrators to begin measures to limit anticipated delays.
The influx was prompted by the tort-reform bill that was presented at the beginning of the Legislative session and, as expected, swiftly signed into law. Filers of the recent civil cases have been in a race against the legislative process that wrapped up last Friday when DeSantis signed the bill, which took effect immediately.
The reform package — heavily supported by the insurance industry and large business interests — included steps to protect businesses and insurance companies from lawsuits. It cuts in half the four-year statute of limitations for filing negligence lawsuits and it largely nixes the “one-way” attorney fees insurers often pay to cover the costs of plaintiffs’ lawyers.
In the first two months of the year, there were about 1,670 circuit civil cases filed in Orange County. So far in March, there have been 4,680 circuit civil cases filed. An additional 4,424 are awaiting processing, according to Dain Weister, a spokesperson for the Orange County clerk’s office.
“It has substantially increased the workload on our deputy clerks who are already taxed with processing civil case filings,” Weister said in a statement. “Our primary concern is having adequate resources to process the high volume of cases. We anticipate delays, but our office is working diligently to process all new filings as quickly as possible and coordinating with our partners in the judiciary to address the challenges involved.”
Circuit civil cases are those in which more than $50,000 is disputed.
In Seminole County, the average circuit civil caseload is typically between 200-400 cases a month, according to statistics provided by the clerk’s office. As of Friday, there were approximately 1,856 circuit civil cases filed in March — more than the previous seven months combined.
“It’s been a bombardment of these cases due to that legislation that the state just passed,” said Grant Maloy, Seminole County’s clerk of court and comptroller. “When everything gets thrown at you all at once … it makes things more difficult.”
Swelling workloads may well lead to a slowdown in cases being added to clerk’s systems and, in turn, documents made available to the public, said Tyler Winik, a spokesperson for the Osceola County clerk’s office.
Winik said the surge in cases causes more delays because initial case filing is one of the more labor-intensive stages of the court system. Parties must be added, attorneys are brought on and the proper information must be extracted so that clerks can report these cases appropriately to the Florida Supreme Court, he said.
Over the weekend, the civil division staff in the clerks’ office in Osceola County worked overtime to “accommodate the influx of filings,” said spokesperson Winik. “We will work throughout the week to identify whether there is a need for additional overtime hours.”
On Tuesday, Osceola County Clerk of Court and Comptroller Kelvin Soto released a statement saying his staff was able to process nearly all of the “unprecedented” number of cases that came flooding into his office since mid-March.
“We nimbly deployed staff to ensure that we could stay within state mandated timeliness requirements for the processing of new cases,” he said. “As of today, I’m proud to share that 99 percent of these cases were completed within those guidelines.”
According to data from the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal, which maintains a statewide court registry, 90,593 circuit civil cases were filed between March 17 and March 22 in Florida. That is 77% of the 118,179 cases filed between Jan. 1 and March 22.
In South Florida’s tri-county region, 23,666 circuit civil cases were filed between March 17 and March 24 — 71% of the 33,315 filed this year through March 22.
Attorney John Morgan, founder of the personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that his teams filed about 25,000 suits alone before the bill went across DeSantis’ desk. He called it “a Herculean effort” and said not to do so would have been “legal malpractice.”
A civil defense lawyers association last Thursday asked Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz in a letter to issue an emergency declaration giving defendants more time to respond to the torrent of litigation.
Supreme Court spokesperson Paul Flemming said Monday that Muñiz is aware of the concerns and “is trying to decide what the best course of action would be.”
Opponents of the new law say it would do nothing to lower insurance premiums and would hurt people seeking compensation from businesses that have harmed them.
DeSantis on Friday said the reform was necessary “to protect Floridians, safeguard our economy and attract more investment in our state.”