For Immediate Release: Thursday, December 22, 2011
For More Information, Contact: Jane Garrott, Executive Director, (608) 257-5741
Top 10 Attacks on Consumer Rights in Wisconsin for 2011
MADISON, WI - Legislative attacks on the rights of Wisconsin consumers in 2011 have been numerous and serious, according to the Wisconsin Association for Justice (WAJ).
"This has been a devastating year for consumer rights in Wisconsin," said WAJ President Ed Vopal. "Governor Walker and our legislature are marching to the beat of big corporate interests and quickly chopping away at the rights of the individual citizen."
Here are the top 10 attacks on consumer rights in 2011, among many others:
1. Allowing the Sale of Unusable Auto Insurance Coverage
A new law allows insurance companies to reduce underinsured motorist coverage (UIM) by the amount of liability coverage possessed by the at-fault driver. UIM coverage protects people when the other driver doesn't have enough liability insurance. In an example two-car collision, Driver A negligently causes the accident and carries the minimum amount of liability insurance, $25,000. Driver B is seriously injured and has $125,000 in medical expenses, lost wages, and other damages. Driver A pays his $25,000. This leaves $100,000 unpaid. Driver B has purchased $100,000 in UIM coverage. Can Driver B recover $100,000 in UIM coverage? No. The new law allows the insurance company to subtract the $25,000 paid by the Driver A from the $100,000 UIM coverage, reducing it to $75,000, and never paying the full UIM coverage.
2. Limiting Attorney Fees in Consumer Cases
When judges award attorney fees, they protect consumers by shifting the cost of enforcement to the wrongdoer rather than the harmed person. By now setting a presumption that legal fees may only be three times the amount of damages, Wisconsin cuts injured consumers' access to court. Those harmed by unlawful acts resulting in limited damages - such as landlords keeping security deposits, employment discrimination and lemon law cases - may find hiring an attorney more difficult. Also, the new law only limits the injured party's fees, but not what the defense may spend.
3. Cap on Punitive Damages
Punitive damages give private citizens a tool to hold wrongdoers accountable for the intentional disregard of their rights and to deter others from such conduct. Punitive damages have been a catalyst for changes in dangerous or defective products - Ford Pinto, Dalkon Shield IUD, and flammable children's pajamas. Wisconsin capped punitive damages in most cases at two times compensatory damages or $200,000, whichever is greater, which is one of the lowest in the country.
4. Ending Liability for a Product Older than 15 years
Under a new law, after 15 years have passed, the State closes the door to strict liability lawsuits against product manufacturers except those caused by latent diseases like that caused by asbestos exposure. This new law has big implications for equipment used in manufacturing, farm machinery and airplanes. As the Wisconsin Supreme Court has written, "... a statute of limitations does not begin to run against a cause of action before that cause of action exists...." This new perverse logic would require the filing of a lawsuit before the injury occurs.
5. Holding Foreign Manufacturers Accountable
For over 40 years, Wisconsin allowed people injured by a defective product to sue the manufacturer, distributor or seller of the product. No longer. The law now requires the injured party to locate manufacturers to serve them with a summons and complaint before including the sellers and distributors in the lawsuit. In other words, the new law makes it difficult to bring suit over a defective foreign-manufactured item.
6. Secrecy of Reports
A new law allows nursing home residents and their families to be denied key information about a nursing home injury - witness statements, dates/timeframes, and equipment details. This law protects bad conduct, and potentially places nursing home residents at higher risk for injury or death. The new law also broadly expands the instances when records are inadmissible, including criminal cases such as sexual abuse of a resident.
7. Caps on Damages to Long-Term Care Residents
A new law caps non-economic damages, including pain, suffering and disability, in cases involving long-term care residents at $750,000. Caps on non-economic damages inordinately discriminate against the elderly and disabled. Nursing home residents - 1 in 7 under the age of 65 - may lack proper care. But because they do not work, the only measure of damage is often their pain and suffering. Caps cut certain groups out of the civil justice system by categorizing their suffering as less worthy of fair compensation.
8. New Standard of Evidence
For more than 30 years, Wisconsin had a standard for court evidence that allowed jurors to determine the reliability of expert witnesses. But now judges are asked to make that assessment. Wisconsin courts previously considered and rejected this federal standard, which in some courts has caused mini-trials on the admissibility of expert testimony, absorbing judicial resources and increasing the cost of litigation. The new rule already is making it more challenging to prosecute some drunken driving cases.
9. Allowing Insurers to Prohibit "Stacking" of Auto Insurance
If a legislator introduced legislation limiting coverage to a single life insurance policy - no matter how many were bought and paid for - consumers would be outraged, especially if the insurer was permitted to continue to take premiums for the coverage that was no longer allowed. The new law allows the prohibition of stacking of uninsured motorist (UM) and underinsured (UIM) policies. By limiting available coverage, Wisconsin consumers may not receive the coverage for which they have paid.
10. Interest Rate Reduction
If someone wronged you by injuring you or failing to pay a bill and you successfully proved your case in court, Wisconsin law previously allowed you to receive interest at an annual rate of 12 percent until the judgment was paid. The Legislature reduced that percentage to the Prime Rate plus one percent, which is currently 4.25 percent. Proponents called 12 percent "exorbitant." Wisconsin has no usury laws for corporations, however, and does not regulate payday loan rates, which have been as high as 446 to 1388 percent.
"More restrictions on consumers' rights and the civil justice system are directly contrary to the goal of justice for all in Wisconsin," Vopal said. "These new laws just widen the gap between the rights of most Wisconsinites and the wealthy business interests that are driving the corporate takeover of the civil justice system."
The Wisconsin Association for Justice stands with consumers to promote a fair and effective justice system for every citizen, not just the privileged and wealthy.