Friday, April 5, 2013

Legislature today: The final push on tort reform proposals

Posted By on Fri, Apr 5, 2013 at 2:25 PM

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Constitutional amendments will be discussed by the legislature's state agencies committees today and competing proposals for changes to law governing damage lawsuits ("tort reform") are at the top of the agenda.


* ETHICS: A constitutional amendment that combines ethics reform (ban on lobbyist gifts, two-year cooling off period for becoming a lobbyist, ban on corporate contributions) with measures that would allow increased pay for legislators and an extension of term limits to 16 years of service, was recommended by the committee for a popular vote.

* TORTS: I'm told no Senate amendment proposals were heard today, so no decision yet on which, if either proposal, on tort reform will make the ballot.

Awaiting word on what other two amendments will be favored.

From earlier today:

The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association has thrown support of plaintiffs' lawyers behind an amendment with new restrictions on damage lawsuits to stave off a far more restrictive proposal in SJR 5 by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and allied business interests.

Today, Matthew Hass, the executive director of the Trial Lawyers group, sent a letter to lawmakers that noted a powerful Arkansas corporate citizen, Riceland Foods OPPOSED a cap on punitive damages, part of the "reform" measures favored by many businesses. Riceland won a huge damage award against Bayer Cropscience in a class action suit over genetically engineered rice. The rice tainted Arkansas crops and made it impossible to sell in foreign markets. Wrote Hass:

Some proponents of SJR 5 cite this case as being bad for Arkansans businesses, yet it was Arkansas businesses and farmers who triumphed over a foreign company. How is protecting Arkansas businesses over German ones bad for business?

Full letter on the jump.

A heavy agenda is under consideration at the Capitol on other fronts. And tomorrow. Among the developments:

* GROCERY TAX CUT: A proposal to take the remaining tiny sales tax off groceries, if revenues can support it, came out of House committee today.

* RAW MILK: The bill to allow farm sales of unpasteurized milk (cheese makers everywhere cheer) also cleared a House committee.

* DREAMS DASHED: Odds look long for Sen. Joyce Elliott's bill to allow children of undocumented immigrants to have in-state tution at Arkansas colleges along with other Arkansas high school graduates. Immigrant animosity is simply too great among Arkansas Republicans.

* PUNISHING PLANNED PARENTHOOD: David Goins of Fox 16 reports on Twitter that the Senate fell one vote short of passing the bill to deny state funding to Planned Parenthood for HIV and sexual transmitted disease education. It got the minimum 18 votes, but one vote was missing when the ballot sounded. It can be reconsidered.

Dear Senator,

I know you’ve probably heard your fill of tort reform over the past few weeks, but I respectfully ask that you consider one more piece of information before making any final decisions.

The attached document is an Amicus Brief. These are written by parties who have something to say about a case being heard. In this instance, Riceland Foods, the world’s largest rice miller and one of Arkansas’ largest employers, wrote a brief on behalf of Arkansas farmers suing Bayer Cropsciences, a German corporation. The farmers were suing Bayer for tainting Arkansas’ rice crop with genetically modified rice that caused foreign markets to shut out Arkansas rice which devastated the industry.

In the brief, Riceland explains why it believes caps on damages are harmful because it allows wrongdoers to minimize the impact of their transgressions. The brief is lengthy and I know your time is precious, so I have pulled a few of Riceland’s quotes from the brief, and I ask that you bear this case in mind. Some proponents of SJR 5 cite this case as being bad for Arkansans businesses, yet it was Arkansas businesses and farmers who triumphed over a foreign company. How is protecting Arkansas businesses over German ones bad for business?

Again, I respectfully ask that you consider these arguments before making your final decision.

Quotes from Riceland Brief:

“Riceland shares Appellees’ interest in having this Court affirm the decision of the Circuit Court of Lonoke County finding the statutory cap on punitive damages unconstitutional. In the past year, three separate Arkansas state court juries have found that Bayer’s LLRICE contamination crippled the agricultural industry in this State and justified significant awards of punitive damages…” Page 10

“…enforcing the statutory cap on punitives in this case would allow Bayer to pay a mere $1 million fine. For a multi-billion-dollar foreign conglomerate such as Bayer, a minuscule fine utterly fails to punish and deter the type of conduct that devastated this State’s rice industry.” Page 10

“… history teaches that the right to jury trial is most commonly threatened precisely where its preservation was deemed most essential — where jury outcomes are different from those preferred by those with political influence.” Page 12

“Indeed, the power to award punitive damages has always belonged to juries, and served as the populace’s most basic protection against those able and willing to violate others’ rights for their own gain. … the tort reform agenda — from which Arkansas’s statutory punitive damages cap emerged — was designed to strip juries of this traditional power.” Page 13

Matthew J. Hass

Matthew J. Hass
Executive Director

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