A “fly-in” to help convince senators to support federal legislation that would protect contractors from frivolous lawsuits has been scheduled for September 4 in Washington D.C., and the organization sponsoring the bill is encouraging sweeping contractors to participate to help get the bill passed.
Kevin Gilbride, executive director of the Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA), which has been one of the most prominent small business associations supporting the bill, said the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) originated the legislation and the NFIB’s lobbying team got the bill introduced in the House and the Senate.
“But Congress needs to hear from all the small businesses impacted by this legislation, which is why ASCA has been one of the loudest voices supporting it,” he said.
It’s also why -- as a crucial part of their strategy to persuade senators to vote for the bill -- ASCA invited members of the North American Power Sweeping Association (NAPSA) to participate in the fly-in.
“NAPSA members find themselves in the same situations as ASCA members – they’re getting dragged into frivolous lawsuits that result in payments to the claimant, increased insurance rates and often loss of insurance,” Gilbride says.
“We invited NAPSA because they are in a similar situation to our members and because they bring something to the table that we don’t have,” Gilbride says. “It only snows in the North and having NAPSA involved enhances our ability to reach senators outside of the northern United States.”
Pete Phillips, NAPSA president and president of Clean Sweep Inc., Chattanooga, TN, said a number of NAPSA members have already indicated they will participate in the fly-in, and NAPSA will hold a board meeting while in Washington to encourage more support.
“We need everyone to come out if they have a story and tell it,” Phillips said. “We especially need support from the warmer sunbelt states because this is not just a problem for snow contractors and it’s not just a problem for sweeping contractors. It’s a problem for any business that’s been faced with a frivolous lawsuit.
“You might not have this problem in your state but you’re still paying the premiums for those who do, so we need to come up and flex our muscle.” Phillips said.
Aim is to Reduce Frivolous Lawsuits
The fly-in is in support of the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (Senate Bill 237), which is aimed at reducing frivolous lawsuits – such as unwarranted slip-and-fall cases.
“Often insurance companies are willing to settle those kinds of cases to avoid costly litigation,” Gilbride said. “When that happens it usually results in increased insurance premiums for the contractor involved and often termination of the contractor’s insurance policy.”
Gilbride cites a particularly egregious example – all captured on security video – of a woman parking her car in a parking lot, walking up to an ATM, withdrawing some money, then walking back to her car. She sits in her car for almost five minutes then makes a phone call claiming that she slipped and fell.
“She didn’t and it’s all on video but the insurance company settled, then cancelled the contractor’s insurance policy two days before a huge snowstorm was expected -- and the contractor had a fleet of snow removal operators to insure,” Gilbride says. “The policy he got before the storm cost him a 100% increase in his premium.”
Gilbride said many snow removal and sweeping contractors have had similar experiences, and that Senate Bill 237 would make filing frivolous lawsuits more difficult. He said the bill would change two aspects of Rule 11 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure: It would make sanctions mandatory on attorneys filing frivolous lawsuits and it would eliminate the 21-day “safe harbor clause.”
“Under Rule 11 it’s up to the judge’s discretion whether to file sanctions and force attorneys and the people they represent to pay a fee for filing what is determined to be a frivolous lawsuit,” Gilbride said. “Usually judges don’t require that fee because they know the attorneys, will be working with them again in the future, and because they’re all friends. The Law Abuse Reduction Act would change the word ‘discretionary’ to ‘mandatory,’ forcing judges to impose sanctions.”
Gilbride says that if the bill is passed he doesn’t expect judges to suddenly start placing large sanctions on attorneys.
“But we do expect that fewer people will file a false claim because they will have to pay damages if the claim is found to be frivolous,” he says.
Gilbride says the bill also removes the 21-day safe harbor clause, which essentially allows attorneys to file a claim for any reason within 21 days – without doing any research into the claim.
“Removal of the 21-day safe harbor clause would force attorneys to do some research before filing the case,” Gilbride says. “It would require them to do research ahead of time, then only file the lawsuit if their research determines it’s justified.”
Gilbride says under current law there’s no incentive for attorneys not to file a case.
“But the prospect of financial sanctions combined with the requirement they look into the claim before filing should be a significant deterrent to frivolous lawsuits,” he says.
Lobbying Efforts Crucial
Gilbride said that over the long term, passage of the bill will reduce insurance rates and will stop or significantly reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. He said the Act has already passed the House of Representatives and needs Senate passage before it’s sent to the President for his signature.
ASCA has been working to pass the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act for more than two years, and Gilbride said this fly-in push is crucial to getting the legislation enacted. He said that because of the mid-term elections in November it’s essential ASCA and NAPSA make this effort to get this bill passed in the Senate before the end of the year.
“There will be new members of the House and the Senate after the elections and if we don’t get this done this year we’ll have to start all over again with the House,” Gilbride said. “So this is a very important visit we’ll be making.”
“This is something that should be a bipartisan issue but this is particularly a very good Congress to put this in front of,” Phillips said.
“Going to Capitol Hill and meeting with aides and senators is very, very important,” Gilbride says. “This is our fifth visit to Washington and our other visits helped get this bill passed through the House. There’s no question about that. Our job is to educate the senators on the impact this bill would have on businesses.
“It will make a significant impact in support of the bill when senators meet with business owners from Texas and Tennessee and other states where we don’t have members – where it doesn’t snow,” he says. “That makes our case much more important and impactful.”
Fly-in events will begin mid-afternoon on Sept. 4 when ASCA will bring all ASCA and NAPSA participants together for a training session.
“NAPSA contractors need to come and learn and they need to be prepared to tell stories of the frivolous lawsuits they’ve experienced in their business and the impact those frivolous lawsuits have had on their business,” Gilbride said. “The idea is to get everyone up to speed on how the meetings will go and things they should be prepared to say.”
On Sept. 5 groups comprised of ASCA and NAPSA members will be led by an ASCA member and will begin meeting with senators or their aides. Gilbride said he expects to have seven groups of NAPSA and ASCA members visiting Senate offices. Meetings will be every hour on the half hour from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and depending on the length of the meetings they expect to meet with more than 75 senators or their aides and they hope to meet will all 100 senators.
“Due to his lobbying efforts Kevin has got us in front of these guys. All we’ve got to do now is participate,” Phillips said. “It seems like a slam dunk. I can’t think of anything more important to the sweeping industry at this time.”
For more information on how to participate in the fly-in contact NAPSA (firstname.lastname@example.org) or ASCA (email@example.com; phone 216-393-0303). Or register for the fly-in at https://www.regonline.com/registration/Checkin.aspx?EventID=2209127.