Supporters, Critics Sound Off About Tort Reform Proposal

By Marti Mikkelson
Milwaukee Public Radio - WUWM
January 7, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker wants the legislature to pass several measures by March that he says will help businesses create more jobs. One proposal would rein-in the types of lawsuits people could file against small businesses. The bill is on a fast track, with a hearing scheduled for next week. As WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports, there’s mixed reaction to the call for tort reform.

One of Gov. Walker’s proposals would require people to sue the manufacturer, if they purchase a faulty product, instead of going after the retailer who sold it. Another measure would limit the amount of money a person could get if they sued someone for damaging actions. Bill Smith supports the changes. He belongs to the business advocacy group, Wisconsin Civil Justice Council. Smith says businesses should be spending their money on hiring more workers, rather than using it for coverage against potential lawsuits.

“We want to make sure that the resources that are generated in our business community are available to reinvest in those businesses and not grow the legal climate,” Smith says.

Smith says some companies are hesitant to locate in Wisconsin because they believe the state’s litigation climate is hostile to business. He says the proposed reforms would send a different message to companies and to some people thinking of suing.

“We have a pretty good statute in Wisconsin dealing with frivolous lawsuits already but this proposal would restate and make sure that when a case is brought, when a lawsuit is filed, that it is filed on behalf of parties that have legitimate basis for that lawsuit,” Smith says.

Among those who criticize the proposals are trial attorneys. Mike End of the group, Wisconsin Association for Justice, does not think the reforms would create many new jobs. He says that’s because product liability and personal injury lawsuits make up only a small portion of the state’s civil suits.

“As of the last year which was 2009 that we have the information for, the tort cases of personal injury, medical malpractice, that type of case constituted only 2.2 percent of the civil case filings in the state of Wisconsin,” End says.

End insists the governor is pandering to big business while turning his back on individuals and families. He says he’s especially troubled by the provision limiting punitive damages for irresponsible actions, saying it could extend beyond the business community.

“If you are run down by a drunk driver under the current law as it now exists, you can show that the drunk driver was acting in a reckless manner and it should not have happened if the drunk driver had been acting appropriately. Now you have to show that the drunk driver intended to injure you,” End says.

End says he’s alarmed at the speed with which the measures are traveling through the Republican-controlled Legislature. A public hearing on the tort reform proposals is scheduled for next week and he says that does not give opponents much time to prepare. The Republican leadership in Madison says it intends to capitalize on the momentum of November’s election and voters’ wishes.

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