Walker moves to make it harder to sue companies

By MARY SPICUZZA
Wisconsin State Journal
Jan. 4, 2011

It would be harder to sue companies and medical providers — or collect damages when things go wrong — if lawsuit reforms pushed by Gov. Scott Walker win the support of state lawmakers.

Business groups praised the new Republican governor's litigation proposals, but trial attorneys and consumer advocates said Walker's proposal would reward reckless conduct by businesses, and they accused the governor of choosing corporate profits over people's safety.

Walker, who proposed the legal reforms and other legislation as part of a special session on the economy aimed at helping to create 250,000 jobs by 2015, called the criticism "fundamentally untrue."

"If someone manufactures something that they know is going to put people at harm, (if) they put a product like that out, even with these things being passed into law, they're going to be liable for it," Walker said.

But the bill would raise the burden on plaintiffs in order to win punitive damages — awards above the direct costs from an injury, such as pain and suffering.

The legislation would also limit liability to products manufactured or sold no more than 25 years before an injury, and make it easier for people to be sanctioned for bringing so-called frivolous lawsuits.

"These common-sense policies will bring Wisconsin into the mainstream and reduce frivolous lawsuits," said Bill Smith, president of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a coalition of groups representing the state's business, manufacturing, medical and insurance industries.

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

Based on a so-called "risk-contribution theory," the court basically found the entire industry created the risk of injury and could be held liable.

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

Walker wants to require people bringing similar lawsuits to prove their injuries were caused by the specific manufacturer, distributor or seller of a product that is being sued. A business shouldn't be held liable for something a "manufacturer makes that they just happen to sell that was pre-packed and they have no reason to believe is faulty," Walker said.

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

Democrats warned that the changes proposed by Walker could leave Wisconsinites vulnerable to unsafe corporate products and practices, while doing nothing to create jobs.

"The governor indicated his No. 1 priority was to create jobs," said Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona. "But it looks like he is doing the bidding of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce," an industry lobbying group.

Trial attorneys and consumer groups agreed.

"Let's face it, every company looking to cut corners in order to make a bigger buck can come to Wisconsin without worry that they will be held accountable for seriously injuring or killing you or a member of your family," said Mike End, president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice.

The legal reforms are part of a broad package of bills Walker wants lawmakers to act on quickly, including tax cuts for businesses, replacing the Commerce Department with a public-private entity focused on job creation, overhauling business regulation, and requiring a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to approve any sales or income tax increases.

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

The governor touted the commission during his campaign as a way to help the state dig out of a $3.3 billion two-year budget shortfall. He wants the group to review state agency budgets and recommend ways to make government smaller by July 1.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Our sponsors