Travelers bill of rights


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:20 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE Bradenton Republican Sen. Mike Bennett says he doesn't object to airlines that ask fliers to pay a ''nominal fee'' if they switch their tickets or miss a flight.
''What I object to is them ripping you off,'' Bennett said.
Arriving in the Legislature on time then is Senate Bill 316, a proposal by Bennett to force airlines to pay travelers whose flights are delayed or canceled due to preventable events.
It wouldn't apply to weather delays or terrorist threats, but would apply to flights delayed or canceled due to mechanical problems or late-arriving crews.
Travelers would receive an amount equal to the penalty they would have to pay if they were to change their already purchased ticket.
''The citizens in the state of Florida should not be asked to, and forced to, eat the excessive penalties just because the airlines can force it on them,'' Bennett said.
He's already heard from airlines opposed to the bill. And the reality is that given federal oversight of airlines, the odds of a state law taking effect may be as long as delays at Atlanta's airport on a holiday weekend.
But Bennett, a millionaire developer, has become an ardent supporter of populist causes in the Legislature.
He's sponsored, and plans to do so again this year, the so-called ''road rage prevention'' bill that requires motorists traveling slowly in the high-speed lane to move over.
And Bennett is proposing a bill this year that would allow voters to check on a box that says, ''I choose not to vote.''
He says it's an effort to clarify controversies like the local congressional election between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings last year which had far fewer votes than other ballot items.
And he noted that his previous bill to require real people to answer state government phones rather than answering machines has now been embraced by Gov. Charlie Crist, who made the exact same request last week.
''There are some bills I file every once in a while to run a shot across the bow, to try to get public attention,'' Bennett said.
The name game Florida trial lawyers announced this week that they have a new name for their lobbying organization. They now call themselves the Florida Justice Association, which replaces the former moniker of The Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.
The name change for the Florida lawyers follows a similar change at the national level where the trial lawyers are now calling themselves the American Association for Justice.
Scott Carruthers said the new name for the Florida group better reflects ''what we believe in and what we fight for every day - that's justice.''
But it didn't take long for the trial lawyers' fierce political rivals - the business community - to offer their assessment of the name change.
''The trial bar is not pursuing justice as much as it is pursuing profits,'' said William Large, director of an anti-trial lawyer group that has its own spiffy name - the Florida Justice Reform Institute.
''Florida's trial lawyer advocates can change their name, but they are still playing the same game. Their mission is to protect attorneys and their fees, not consumers.''
Large contends that ''excessive litigation is an important factor'' in driving up insurance rates.
But as lawmakers head into a special session on property insurance, Carruthers said his group would be pushing measures that are aimed at helping consumers.
''Never has there been a time when Florida consumers have needed someone to fight for them more than now,'' he said.
And at least for now, it appears that the proposals being pushed by the trial lawyers - which include stronger regulation of the insurance industry and a greater role for the Office of Public Counsel in rate disputes - is being met favorably by lawmakers.
Most of the proposals advanced by the lawyers' group are in either the House or Senate bills that will be debated in the special session.
Compiled from reports by Joe Follick and Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Sun Tallahassee Bureau.
''Florida's trial lawyer advocates can change their name, but they are still playing the same game," said William Large.

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