Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Lawsuit reforms return bit by bit

GOP-led effort successful in restoring limits

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio doctors will soon have something in common with gunmakers, funeral home owners, nursing home operators, domestic violence counselors and the state fire marshal.

All recently won new safeguards against lawsuits from a Republican-run General Assembly that's on a mission to restrict what plaintiffs, lawyers, juries and judges can do in civil courts.

A bill capping medical malpractice verdicts that passed the Ohio Senate 22-9 Tuesday is intended to help doctors struggling to pay soaring insurance rates. It's the most recent and high-profile example of a far-reaching GOP- and business-backed agenda to control lawsuit costs.

Ohio lawmakers have passed bills protecting businesses and government officials from lawsuits over the past two years. Here's a look at what changed and who benefited.
Lawmakers sent Gov. Bob Taft a bill Tuesday that would cap jury awards in medical malpractice cases from $350,000 to $1 million, depending on the severity of the injuries and the number of plaintiffs.
Liability limits
A company in a product liability lawsuit is responsible for all damages if a court determines it is more than 50 percent liable. A company found 50 percent or less liable in the case pays only that percentage of the amount awarded.
Recreation centers
Local governments got better protections from lawsuits filed by people injured in any public recreational facility that has rope bridges, climbing walls or where bicycling, skating, skate boarding and scooter riding is allowed.
Gun makers were granted immunity from future lawsuits filed on behalf of Ohioans injured or killed by firearms.
Nursing homes
The results of a state inspection or survey of a nursing home cannot be used as evidence in a civil lawsuit. A lawsuit against a nursing home can't be filed more than 18 months after an injury occurs.
Lawmakers put a five-year statute of limitations for lawsuits filed under state environmental protection laws.
Anyone injured or otherwise harmed while committing a felony or a misdemeanor crime of violence cannot file a personal injury lawsuit.
Domestic violence shelters
A new law shields shelters and their employees from lawsuits filed on behalf of people who were injured or killed by family members while they were residents of the shelter.
Funeral processions
Funeral homes cannot be sued for accidents that take place during a procession that doesn't violate state right-of-way laws.
Schools are protected from lawsuits filed on behalf of people injured during the construction, renovation and operation of gymnasiums, auditoriums or other athletic facility.
Makes doctors' peer review committees immune from injury suits.
State fire marshal
The fire marshal and the office's employees would get qualified civil immunity from lawsuits filed relating to car accidents and instructors at the Ohio Fire Academy.
Source: Legislative Service Commission, Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice.
This course was set in 1999 after the Ohio Supreme Court threw out a sweeping state law intended to clamp down on all kinds of lawsuits. Since that 4-3 decision, lawmakers have slowly restored the law piece by piece, passing at least 12 separate measures over the past two years.

Their pace will pick up this January, following a business-friendly shift in the high court's balance of power. The election of Republican Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor to replace retiring Justice Andrew Douglas has business groups practically giddy that lawsuit limits may finally be upheld.

"I think this court will acknowledge that the legislature has the authority to make these decisions," said Roger Geiger, director of the Ohio National Federation of Independent Business.

Mr. Geiger also helps lead the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice, which speaks on behalf of 200 Ohio corporations, business groups, non-profits and governments. All want new laws passed to restrict how lawsuits could proceed, how much money could be won and who would pay.

Why? David Hansen, the Alliance director, said unreasonable jury awards and frivolous lawsuits are driving up businesses' costs.

An August study by the American Tort Reform Association claims lawsuits cost every man, woman and child in Ohio $636 a year. "Ohio manufacturers need to reinvest in themselves, and still deliver products at the same or lower prices," said Mr. Hansen, also a lobbyist for the Ohio Manufacturers' Association.

Richard Mason, director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, and an outspoken opponent of lawsuit limits, said these bills do nothing more than help corporations and insurance companies pad their bottom lines. "Will there be less expensive cars, refrigerators and lower auto insurance policies? That won't happen," Mr. Mason said. "We are opposed to corporations increasing their profits at the expense of the people they injure or kill."

A number of Ohio Democrats agree. "There's literally no actuarial data to say this will make a difference in doctors' rates," Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, said of the malpractice bill.

Those arguments aren't enough to deter majority Republicans who control the House and Senate.

The Senate's Tuesday vote sends Gov. Bob Taft a bill that would limit court awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases to $350,000 up to $1 million. The amount plaintiffs would get would depend the severity of their injuries and the number of plaintiffs in each case.

The plan imposes a four-year deadline to file most malpractice lawsuits. It also places new limits on the fees lawyers can collect in these cases.

The bill is the legislature's response to an insurance crisis that has Ohio doctors paying 20 to 60 percent more each year for malpractice coverage.

"We're responding to a crisis confronting doctors in Ohio," said Sen. David Goodman, R-Bexley, sponsor of the bill. While the debate over the doctors' plight has grabbed headlines, legislators have been busy on other topics.

Passed last week with much less fanfare was a bill that would bar plaintiffs from automatically reaching into the deepest pockets to pay off lawsuit awards. Under this law, a corporation judged 25 percent liable in a personal injury case would pay only 25 percent of the judgment.

There's more.

Legislative conservatives angry over Cincinnati's lawsuit against gun manufacturers passed a bill last year that says the companies can't be held responsible for the criminal use of their products.

Domestic violence shelters won new protections from lawsuits filed by people hurt by spouses or relatives while under shelter care. Funeral homes can now shrug off injury lawsuits stemming from funeral procession accidents, if they show right-of-way laws were obeyed.

Nursing homes will benefit from a new state law that bars state inspection reports and surveys from being used as evidence in malpractice suits. Even the State Fire Marshal's office got a bill restricting lawsuits filed over employee car accidents and injuries at the Fire Academy.

With a new GOP-dominant state government and Supreme Court due to be sworn in this January, more aggressive proposals are on the way.

Business groups now hope to cap awards in product liability suits and other claims. They also want to limit how long a business can be held responsible for injuries caused by old or obsolete products.

The law the Ohio Supreme Court rejected in 1999 capped "pain and suffering" awards at $500,000. Punitive damages, amounts juries award to punish a company, would have been limited to $250,000 or three times the amount plaintiffs won due to lost wages and other income, whichever is greater.

While Republicans are confident the Ohio Supreme Court will uphold all or most of their new lawsuit limits, Mr. Mason is not so sure.

"There will be court challenges somewhere down the road," he said. "We'll look at it on an issue-by-issue basis, as will the legislature."


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