A Brick At A Time

   By  

Ann S.Jacobs, President

Wisconsin Association for Justice

If it’s not a record for legislative overreach, I would be surprised.

Wisconsin has thirty-five individual immunity laws on the books. Thirty-five times someone or some group has lobbied the legislature for a law that says they don’t want to be held responsible if they make a mistake.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get the same deal? “Sorry boss, but under Wisconsin law, you can’t yell at me, I have immunity.”

This isn’t a partisan issues. It crosses, historically, both sides of the aisle. For far too long, legislators have been handing out immunity laws to groups they favor like they are Skittles on Halloween.

Want an example? There’s a law currently pending in the Legislature that would absolve camp ground owners and their employees from virtually any responsibility for injuries they cause in running their business. You would hope a camp ground operator would not leave a cover off of a well, right? Or follow the rules for treating swimming pool water?  How about enforcing safe food handling in the snack shack?  Under the proposed law, the owners and employees would escape all responsibility if someone is hurt because they didn’t follow these basic safety rules.  They would be immune.

Businesses often argue they can’t get insurance without immunity. Poppycock.  Insurance is there precisely to protect the owner from legitimate accidents and the repercussions of acting unreasonably.   If you have immunity, what’s the point of buying insurance? In the dictionary, under redundant it says, “see redundant.”

No matter how much legislators wish it were not so, people and businesses can and will act unreasonably.  They will do things that harm others. That’s why we have a civil justice system. Our history is full of situations where the courts changed the path of an industry for the better.  Consider the Ford Pinto or Fen-Fen litigation. Statistics show Wisconsinites are highly unlikely, even when we have the chance, to sue. We simply don’t think that way. It’s only when unreasonable behavior by one side reaches a level of utter frustration that we are likely to turn to the courts.

With these constant and expanding immunity bills, we are creating exclusive cliques where anything goes. If you’re part of the Wisconsin 35 (and there are more in the pipeline), you can do almost anything and walk away from it. Instead of expecting a level of reasonable level of care in our state, we seem bent on rewarding just the opposite – a lack of reasonable care. 

There are examples of where immunity is legitimate because it protects both sides. Vaccine manufacturers are immune, but we created the Vaccine Injury system to compensate people harmed. In Wisconsin, employers are immune to suits from their injured employees, but we created Worker’s Compensation so workers aren’t abandoned if they get sick or hurt on the job.  Where there is a legitimate need for immunity, there remains an alternative for relief.  With these other bills, the innocent injured person is without any recourse.  The wrong-doer, the business that acted unreasonably and caused harm, simply walks away.

Every time a Legislature passes an immunity law it creates another brick. Each brick goes on top of the last in front of the courthouse door making it even harder to fight for your rights. Stack enough bricks and we all lose. That is, unless you have immunity.

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