Walker's civil lawsuit reforms draw split reaction

By SCOTT BAUER - Jan 4, 2011
The Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker's proposed reforms to make it harder for people to successfully sue and collect damages in civil lawsuits drew praise Tuesday from the business community that the changes would primarily benefit.

Trial attorneys said the new governor was turning his back on individuals and families and rolling out the welcome mat to companies that want to cut corners and not be held accountable for what they produce.

Walker argued that the changes will help attract business to the state and assist him in fulfilling his pledge to create 250,000 jobs by 2015. He called criticism that the changes would be a corporate giveaway "fundamentally untrue."

Walker wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass the reforms by March.

Others measures he wants the Legislature to pass quickly include tax cuts for businesses, a revamping of the Commerce Department and a requirement that it take two-thirds of the Legislature, instead of a simple majority, to approve a sales or income tax increase.

The far-reaching lawsuit reform proposal would make it more difficult for those bringing lawsuits to prove they were injured by a company's product and to collect damages. Walker said it would protect retailers from liability for defects caused by manufacturers and distributers.

It would also limit liability to products manufactured and sold within 25 years of an injury and make it easier for someone to be sanctioned for bringing a frivolous lawsuit.

The bill comes in response to a controversial 2005 state Supreme Court ruling that said lead paint manufacturers could be held liable for injuries suffered by a Milwaukee boy, even though the boy couldn't prove which companies made the pigment that sickened him.

Essentially it meant the entire industry, not just one company, could be held liable.

That ruling was the first of its kind and set off a backlash against the court by business interests that claimed that companies could now be sued when their products weren't at fault for a person's injuries.

Walker wants to require those bringing similar lawsuits to prove their injuries were caused by the specific manufacturer, distributor or seller of a product that is being sued.

A similar bill passed the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2006 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat.

Supporters of changing the law argue it would prevent companies from being targeted by frivolous lawsuits. Defenders of the court's ruling said it provided recourse for families who were harmed by lead paint.

The changes being sought by Walker would reward big corporations, insurance companies and special interest groups, according to the Wisconsin Association for Justice, which represents trial attorneys.

"If these proposals become reality, then big businesses will set the rules, and when they do the benefits go to big business, not the people," said the group's president Mike End.

Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee said the bill, large portions of which have been proposed and debated for years, would do nothing to create jobs.

"All they do is give away the store," Richards said.

Supporters of the proposal, including Walker, say the changes will make Wisconsin more business-friendly.

"These common-sense policies will bring Wisconsin into the mainstream and reduce frivolous lawsuits," said Bill Smith, president of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council and state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The council is a coalition of groups representing the state's business, manufacturing, medical and insurance industries.

The Wisconsin Defense Counsel, which represents 450 defense attorneys, said passing the reforms would send a signal to the rest of the country that Wisconsin is serious about attracting new businesses and adding jobs. The Wisconsin Economic Development Association, which works to promote businesses in the state, also praised Walker's proposal.

Also on Tuesday, Walker released an executive order creating a commission he hopes will find $300 million a year in government waste, fraud and abuse.

Walker touted the commission during his campaign as a way to help the state dig out of a $3 billion two-year budget shortfall. He wants the group to review all state agency budgets and recommend ways to make government smaller by July 1.

Walker took time on Tuesday to meet with Senate Democrats as a group as well as legislative leaders. He also held his first cabinet meeting.

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