Tort reform Nate Bell-style: Give the state punitive damages | Arkansas Blog

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tort reform Nate Bell-style: Give the state punitive damages

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 1:37 PM

click to enlarge WHAT'S GRANNY WORTH? No more than $250,000, Arkansas nursing homes believe. - WISCONSINWATCH.ORG
  • WHAT'S GRANNY WORTH? No more than $250,000, Arkansas nursing homes believe.

The big battle on reducing corporate exposure to civil lawsuits — aka "tort reform" — rages in  extended circle of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Commitees, where proposed constitutional amendments are considered. But Republican Rep. Nate Bell added his contribution to the fray yesterday in a tax bill.

Bell would not end or severely limit punitive damages, as nursing homes and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce want. But he would divert 90 percent of any punitive damage award to the state for a "tax relief fund" that would pay for tax reductions.

Bell's bill specifies that attorney fees could only be based on the 10 percent that still would go to an injured party, not the state's 90 percent.

Two obvious problems:

1) It would provide no relief to corporations.

2) Juries might be more inclined to give big punitive damages if they knew it would benefit them in the form of a tax cut.

Hard to see this going anywhere, but my prognosticating isn't so hot.  I didn't think the annual attempt to raid general revenues for highways would go anywhere, particularly with gubernatorial opposition.

As for the bigger tort reform issue: Hard to see a compromise developing this year and hard to see an amendment getting out of the half-Democratic Senate committee if it is not a compromise proposal.

Nursing homes want to set an absolute cap on the value of a human life at $250,000 and limit punitive damages to some small multiple of that.

The Chamber of Commerce doesn't want to write such a low number into a constitutional amendment — imagine the TV ads of a sparkling-eyed granny, her life snuffed by a negligent act, valued at only $250,000. And it is far more interested in taking rule-making authority from the Supreme Court and giving it to the legislature, so rules may be tailored to fit current events. They'd like to see a scheme, too, whereby corporate-friendly rules could be adopted by a simple majority vote and then strengthened only by a two-thirds vote. The nursing homes, which worry about non-economic damages more than corporations, is fixated on low-balling the value of a life.

The corporations might figure that they're better off waiting two years to get everything than to settle for a mushy compromise this time around.

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