Favorite

Republican majority split on tort reform 

With the Republican Party in the Arkansas legislative majority, intraparty squabbles now have higher stakes, not to mention opportunities for outsiders.

A good example happened last week.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a legislative veteran, filed a constitutional amendment on tort reform. It is aimed at addressing an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that invalidated an overly restrictive statute about who could be an expert witness in a medical malpractice case.

Ho hum. A Republican with lots of Republican co-sponsors in the House and Senate offers a defense-friendly tort reform measure, which also would allow damages for frivolous lawsuits.

But wait. Hutchinson lined up liberal Democratic lights such as Sens. David Johnson and Joyce Elliott and Rep. Greg Leding as sponsors along with Republican conservatives like Jon Woods and Denny Altes.

It was a crafty move by Hutchinson, who's been associated in legal practice with David Goodson, the political powerhouse trial lawyer from Texarkana (and husband of Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson). He took an idea to the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, which espouses the interests of plaintiff lawyers. Tort reform was coming. Every business lobby wants it. The legislature is majority Republican. Was there a way to make the certain dose of medicine go down more easily?

Hutchinson's idea was to enshrine new tort rules in the Constitution. This puts them out of reach of the legislature. The rules he's proposed are modeled on tort reform legislation adopted in Republican-majority Tennessee. They are not liberal. But they provide a little more time to perfect a medical malpractice cases and a tiny bit of leeway on qualifying an expert medical witness.

Most of all, the amendment sidesteps a worse alternative. The business lobby — led by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Tyson Foods and the Walton family — will back a proposal to be sponsored by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams. It was still cooking last week in the Friday Law Firm. But a circulating draft indicated, along with some workers compensation changes, the proposal would strip the Arkansas Supreme Court of its constitutional authority to set procedural rules in tort cases. It would hand that power to the legislature.

Legislative control is a corporate lobbyist full-employment act. Faced with a potentially ruinous lawsuit, a company could hire lobbyists to win a legislative rule change to cripple or kill the lawsuit. Think of how quickly, for example, potential damages could mount in a class action suit for farmers with food crops polluted by a chemical in fertilizer provided by chicken waste.

The trial lawyers decided to go with Hutchinson against a far worse fate. They have helped assemble a broad coalition to outnumber the business lobby but also to guard against a weakening of Hutchinson's proposal.

Eddie Joe Williams admits he was "surprised" by Hutchinson turning up first with a proposal backed by a number of Republicans. Williams, the Republican leader in the Senate, thought that would be his prerogative. He insists reports of harsh words with Hutchinson last week are inaccurate. "I'm a gentleman," he said.

Williams is also reportedly thinking, as many Republicans in the Senate seem to be, of seeking a higher office in 2014, say lieutenant governor. The business lobby could be a powerful financial helper.

The business lobby's diversity — from doctors to retailers to poultry producers to industrialists — means it has a variety of specific wants beyond the general goal of tort reform. That might be why it's taken them longer to get their proposal in order. It's certainly why they prefer to have all those varied interests in the legislature's hands, rather than those of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Of course, if this session goes wrong for the business lobby on tort reform (and even if they get their preferred amendment to the ballot, it could be beaten), there are always Supreme Court elections to correct any problems at the source. Business interests have enough money for that, too.

Favorite

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

  • Special master clears minimum wage initiative

    Special Master Sam Bird said today that the proposed minimum wage initiated act had sufficient valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The Arkansas Supreme Court will review the decision and make the final call.
    • Sep 24, 2018
  • Monday: Open line and the news

    The open line and today's headlines.
    • Sep 24, 2018
  • Special master finds term limits signatures insufficient

    A special master has concluded that petitions to put a term limits amendment on the November ballot were insufficient because 14,810 signatures shouldn't be counted, mostly for discrepancies in complying with a law that applies to paid canvassers.
    • Sep 24, 2018
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Double-talk

    A couple of instances of doublespeak cropped up in Little Rock over the weekend.
    • Jun 29, 2017
  • Along the civil rights trail

    A convergence of events in recent days signaled again how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in civil rights.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • The Oval outhouse

    One thing all Americans finally can agree upon is that public discourse has coarsened irretrievably in the era of Donald Trump and largely at his instance.
    • Jan 18, 2018

Latest in Max Brantley

  • Moving deck chairs

    Governor Hutchinson has promised to soon reveal his ideas for "transforming government" — a reorganization aimed at reducing the number of departments that report to the governor.
    • Sep 20, 2018
  • Throw the bums in the legislature out

    Jon Woods, the former state senator, got a whopping 18-year federal prison sentence last week from Judge Timothy Brooks, who described Woods' criminality as "grotesque" and "depraved."
    • Sep 13, 2018
  • Armed teachers

    The Arkansas School Safety Commission heard belatedly last week about ideas to make schools safer that don't put more guns at the top of the list of solutions.
    • Sep 6, 2018
  • More »

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: No sympathy for Sarah Huckabee Sanders

    • I agree with jsb113, but it also sounds like some Democrat's you know are making…

    • on September 24, 2018
  • Re: Dress code bias

    • About the comparison of boys shorts verses girls short shorts in schools is no way…

    • on September 23, 2018
  • Re: Moving deck chairs

    • Outstanding commentary. Excellent points about the efficiency and cost savings of mega agencies. What a…

    • on September 22, 2018
 

© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation