Lawmakers take testimony on lawsuit reforms

by Andrew Beckett
Wisconsin Radio Network
January 12, 2011

A joint legislative committee heard several hours of testimony Tuesday afternoon on Governor Scott Walker’s proposal for sweeping lawsuit reforms in the state. Those changes include capping certain damages victims can collect, along with making it harder for people to sue businesses and medical providers.

Brian Hagedorn, Governor Walker’s chief legal counsel, told lawmakers that the bill is a key component of efforts to attract new businesses to Wisconsin. He says the current litigation climate in Wisconsin needs to change, so potential employers are not worried about facing frivolous lawsuits.

Bill Smith of the National Federation of Independent Businesses says the changes are needed to protect employers from having to constantly worry about defending themselves against those types of legal challenges. He says just one baseless lawsuit can be the end of a small business, putting people out of work.

Democratic lawmakers on the panel question if the bill is really needed though. State Representative Tony Staskunas (D-West Allis) says there are national studies showing Wisconsin actually has a very good climate for controlling liability lawsuits. He says there’s a real lack of evidence that Wisconsin is so far outside the mainstream that we’re some sort of “tort hell.”

Lawmakers also heard testimony that the bill would block the results of state investigations from being used as evidence in medical lawsuits. Christine Larson of West Bend talked about the loss of her 27-year-old daughter Tia, who she says died in a nursing home because of staff negligence when they failed to administer insulin. Larson says the truth was only discovered after a state investigation found information was excluded from medical reports. Under the proposed changes, she says they never would have known the truth.

Rep. Staskunas also raised concerns the bill could let drunk drivers get off the hook for civil damages in accidents they cause, due to increased liability standards that require victims to prove someone intended to cause harm. Hagedorn says that is a concern the Governor would want to address.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:17).

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