Tort reform measure advances out of Pa. Senate committee

By Jon Campisi | Jun 20, 2011

As if there weren’t enough versions of tort reform legislation on the table, Pennsylvania lawmakers are once again weighing in on a bill that would alter the way judgments are awarded in civil cases.

On June 13, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12th District, introduced Senate Bill 1131. The measure was introduced as an alternative to House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2, both of which deal with joint and several liability reform.

The new bill, which Greenleaf spokesman Greg Warner said “mirrors” the two aforementioned bills with slight exceptions, is also being offered as an alternative to the senator’s own Senate Bill 500.

“It’s essentially the same as House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2,” Warner said by phone from the senator’s Harrisburg office June 17.

SB 1131 differs slightly from the other bills in that it offers two exceptions, Warner said. In this case, joint liability would apply to cases involving economic damages like medical expenses and lost earnings, and would also apply in claims involving children who were either victimized, or had a wrongful death interest in a lawsuit.

Warner said the new bill is viewed as business-friendly, and he expects tort reform proponents to get behind the measure, which Warner said could see debate in the capitol as early as today.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have been eyeing jointly and several liability reform for some time now. Legislation passed both the state House and Senate back in 2002, only to be struck down by state appellate judges who deemed the law unconstitutional, since it had been tacked onto another bill, something prohibited by the commonwealth’s constitution.

Tort reform came into play again in 2006, but the legislation was vetoed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

In an interview late last month, Gene Barr, vice president of government and public affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said any type of comparative negligence reform was necessary in today’s day and age.

“Making our legal climate more competitive, more fair, more balanced has been a high priority of the chamber for a long time,” Barr told the Pennsylvania Record at the time.

Barr had said the chamber favored HB 1 and SB 2 over Greenleaf’s original SB 500, since the latter didn’t go far enough as far as reform is concerned. Barr said SB 500 would only provide relief to multiple defendants when the plaintiff is found to be more at fault than any given defendant individually.

Tort reform supporters view Pennsylvania as in the dark ages when it comes to comparative negligence. Currently, a defendant in a civil case who is found to be only slightly liable would be responsible for doling out all of the monetary damages if their co-defendant was unable to pay. This means a defendant found 1 percent liable can be forced to pay the entire judgment if the defendant found 99 percent liable is bankrupt or can’t pay for some other reason.

Civil defense lawyers, in general, support some type of legislative reform in the Keystone State.

During an interview last month, defense lawyer Christopher Hoare, who is licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, said the Garden State and the Empire State have proportionate liability, in which defendants only have to pay their proportionate share of a verdict.

The goal among reform proponents is to have the same type of proportionate liability in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania law, as it’s currently written, affects the cost of business for many, Hoare had said, since it often means businesses have to carry larger insurance policies to help offset potential legal costs.

The new bill offered up by Sen. Greenleaf, SB 1131, was co-sponsored by Sen. Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, who also sponsored SB 2.

HB 1 and SB both remain stalled in committee. Greenleaf’s SB 1131 was approved on second consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Tuesday, June 14. It could be voted on as early as this week, said Warner, Greenleaf’s Harrisburg spokesman.

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