- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Florida House on Wednesday agreed to limit who can be named as defendants in lawsuits against nursing homes in a bill that now goes to Gov. Rick Scott.

The measure prohibits “passive investors,” those not involved in the direct decision-making of a facility, from being sued. Supporters say it opens the door to more investment in the state’s nursing homes, enabling them to provide better care.

“The state has a compelling interest in ensuring that these homes are operating at the best level and that there is more investment in those homes,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, who sponsored the House version of the bill (HB 569), during floor debate Tuesday.

The bill, which passed 109-7, has the backing of an unlikely alliance of supporters, including the Florida Justice Association, a plaintiff lawyers group, the AARP and the Florida Health Care Association. Supporters say it targets Tampa lawyer James Wilkes, who has built a successful practice around nursing home suits.

“Gov. Scott understands how excessive litigation can destroy investors’ interest in creating new facilities and new jobs in Florida’s vital nursing home industry,” Florida Health Care Association executive director Emmett Reed said in a statement.

Foes of the bill say the larger corporate parents of nursing homes are concerned mostly with keeping costs low and profit margins high - which they believe are linked to injury and death in the homes.

“These corporations are here to make money, and the first thing they do is cut the staff,” Barbara DeVane of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans told a legislative committee last month.

Lawyers have pursued investors because lawsuits tend to seek the deepest pockets and management companies are often the first line of defense.

“The entire cost is based on who investors are, and if you don’t know who they are, your system is going to go bankrupt,” Wilkes said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press

The bill still allows other parties to be brought into a lawsuit if it can be proven that they have the authority to make decisions at a facility, although the bill would make it harder and more time consuming to do so though the discovery process.

In a trade-off for the nursing home industry, lawyers would have better access to records, potentially streamlining cases.

The bill also gives the Agency for Health Care Administration, the state department that licenses nursing homes, the ability to refuse to renew the license of a facility that loses a lawsuit and fails to pay any judgment within 60 days.

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