TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A proposal that would make owners of drones liable for the negligence of the aerial devices’ operators was revamped Tuesday, but critics still say the measure could ground the industry’s growth in Florida.
The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 6-1 to support an amended proposal (SB 642) by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, that would expand who could be sued when a drone causes damages.
Diaz de la Portilla said the revamped measure is intended to focus more on small, toy-sized drones that may be loaned to other people for recreation, while letting courts determine how responsible the owners are when drones cause damage or harm to others.
He said similar legislation is already in place regarding commercial drones.
“Before you lend the drone … you’ve got to realize that if any one of us is negligent in the operation of it, causes damages, you could responsible for it,” Diaz de la Portilla said after the meeting. “Just like you would think twice before you lend your car to somebody, or your boat or your golf cart, because you could be legally responsible.”
Due to opposition from business groups, Diaz de la Portilla got the committee to replace language in the bill that would have specifically imposed “joint and several liability” on owners of drones for the negligence of operators.
In its place the proposal would now classify all drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds as a “dangerous instrumentality,” similar to a car or boat.
In the initial proposal seeking to use joint and several liability, the owner of drones could be 100 percent liable for damages and harm caused by drones. With the new language, a drone owner could still be held liable, but it would be up to a court to determine the percentage.
However, the political arm for the commercial unmanned aerial-systems industry believes that even with the rewrite, the proposal would encourage unnecessary and expensive lawsuits and may prevent the industry from reaching its potential.
“We believe that this will send a message that while other states are embracing this technology, Florida is not,” said David Daniel, representing the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Association of Florida. “This legislation won’t stop a bird from hitting an airplane and it won’t stop a drone from hitting an airplane. You cannot regulate the choices of others, particularly those in the recreational field.”
In casting the lone vote against the measure, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he needed more time to understand the impact of the amended proposal.
“I don’t believe the Legislature should ever try to put itself in a position to stopping technology,” Richter said. “Drones are here. They’re going to be here. We can’t stop technology. We need to properly regulate technology.”
Lawmakers in past years have approved legislation about the industry. For example, a 2013 law restricted the use of unmanned aerial drones by law enforcement unless judges issue warrants, there is a “high risk of terrorist attack” or officials fear someone is in imminent danger. Another law prohibits the use of aerial drones to capture images that could infringe on the privacy of property owners or occupants.
The Senate measure must still get through the Rules Committee before it goes before the entire chamber.
A similar House measure (HB 459) has been scheduled for two committee appearances — the Civil Justice Subcommittee and the Judiciary Committee — but has yet to appear before either.
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.