Florida Courts Open for Business?

Samuel Ludington – There are many reasons why companies would want to do business in Florida: it’s iconic beaches, tropical weather, premier university system, diverse workforce, world-class seaports, exponential population growth, and proximity to the emerging Latin American and Caribbean markets all make Florida an attractive state for expanding companies. Despite the advantages Florida enjoys, Florida compares poorly with competing states in one category: the state’s litigation environment, which 89% of business leaders say impacts a decision to expand to a given state.  In fact, the Florida Chamber of Commerce refers to the state as the “worst ‘Judicial Hellhole’ in the nation.”

In a survey commissioned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform to quantify corporate attorneys and business leaders’ perception of each state’s litigation climate, Florida ranks forty-sixth. Survey participants were comprised of 1,307 in-house general counsel and executives at companies with annual revenues of $100 million or greater who indicated that they: (1) were knowledgeable about litigation matters; and (2) had firsthand litigation experience within the last five years. Respondents were asked to give states a grade (A through F) in the following areas: enforcing meaningful venue requirements; overall treatment of tort and contract litigation; treatment of class action suits and mass consolidation suits; damages; proportional discovery; scientific and technical evidence; trial judges’ impartiality; trial judges’ competence; fairness of juries; and quality of appellate review. In seven of the ten categories, Florida was ranked in the bottom five. In a follow-up question, respondents were asked to identify which city or county courts they perceived to be the least fair and reasonable litigation environment; Miami or Dade County, was ranked sixth.

In a Tallahassee press conference, Governor Ron DeSantis, joined by lawmakers and members the Florida Chamber of Commerce, affirmed his commitment to create a more favorable litigation climate for businesses. Governor DeSantis and the business leaders decried the state’s “lawsuit culture”, which allegedly promotes legal actions that limit job growth and increase overall business costs, which translates into higher costs for consumers. Conversely, trial lawyers and consumer protection groups argue that the courts are an essential safeguard against corporate malfeasance.

While an essential function of a governor is to promote the state’s economy, one must ask whether it is appropriate to do so by fostering a pro-business climate in what is supposed to be an independent judiciary? Does this commitment to a pro-business judiciary erode the public’s trust in the justice system, thus discouraging aggreieved parties from taking legal action against businesses? At his press conference, Governor DeSantis remarked that there “was a lack of trust and confidence in the judiciary.” One stands to wonder whether the Governor’s commitment to protect businesses will have the unintended, or possibly intented, consequence of preventing injured Floridians from seeking justice against corporate defendants.

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