Guest column:

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By Thomas C. Feeney III

Tallahassee

President and CEO

Associated Industries of Florida

With the Great Recession behind us, the United States is on the rebound. Florida, in particular, has experienced an economic comeback few other states can match. The pace of Florida’s economic growth picked up significantly with 2012 boasting the fastest rate of economic growth in six years. Our statewide unemployment rate has dropped to 7.1 percent the lowest it has been since September 2008 and remains under the national average. Florida’s housing market is bouncing back with an increasing number of home sales and home prices on the rise. A recent report by Moody’s Investment Service projects strong, long-term economic performance in Florida and an employment growth rate that will surpass the national rate.

These are all great signs that signal a return to economic prosperity in Florida. As the Moody’s report pointed out, Florida’s continued strength lies with its robust population growth, low cost of living, a favorable climate and solid economic fundamentals. Given these natural and economic assets, our state stands out as an attractive place to locate and do business.

However, when you look past the beaches and the sunshine and into our court systems, the legal climate is not always so sunny for businesses. Florida is often cited as a litigious state with a court system fraught with frivolous lawsuits and bizarre legal precedents unfriendly to the business community.

Take, for example, the recent rash of lawsuits filed against BP throughout Florida and in other Gulf states. After the 2010 Gulf oil spill, BP worked quickly to compensate businesses that had suffered spill-related losses. The company has already paid more than 300,000 claims totaling $11 billion, and committed to compensating remaining individuals and businesses with legitimate claims through a settlement agreement.

Unfortunately, avaricious trial lawyers misinterpreting this agreement have created a veritable “free-for-all” of litigants looking to cash in the oil spill. Urged on by lawyers who promise payments for losses unrelated to the spill, claims are being made by individuals and businesses that are located nowhere near the Gulf and others by companies for years in which they actually had improved profits. Among those driving these claims are Florida plaintiff attorneys.

Taking businesses to court based on the perception they have pockets deep enough to pay has become its own enterprise.

Abuses of the court system and a “take them for all you can” mentality do more to hurt our collective national and statewide economic recovery than anything else. In fact, they have a chilling effect on business that translates to fewer jobs and less revenue pumped into our economy, and creates the potential to reverse the significant progress we have made toward getting Florida back on track. Costly lawsuits and unnecessary legal actions, as we are seeing here in Florida against BP, are a significant deterrent to companies wanting to relocate to our state and engage in commerce with our existing business community.

If we are to secure our spot as the premier business destination in the U.S., and create a brighter future for the residents of this state, Florida must create a clear and level playing field in the courtroom for our businesses.

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