Lawsuit limits grind forward despite criticism

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Cleveland Plain Dealer

COLUMBUS, OHIO — After months of hearings and exhaustive research, Ohio lawmakers are prepared to pass a bill aimed at curbing runaway jury awards.

But they might be looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, says the chairman of the House committee studying the bill.

“Except for a case here or there, there is no systematic runaway-jury problem in Ohio,” said Rep. Scott Oelslager, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has the bill. Oelslager, a Canton Republican, should know.

He has held 15 hearings and conducted an extensive survey of Ohio’s legal community and the Ohio Department of Insurance.

“Common pleas judges overwhelmingly say it is not a problem,” Oelslager said.

Still, the Senate has already passed the so-called “tort reform” bill, and the House is likely to agree to some form of it before year’s end because Republican leaders want it.

The two chambers are working behind the scenes to iron out their differences.

But does Ohio really need the bill?

“Arguments can be made that it is questionable,” Oelslager said.

Business interests have no such reservations. They have muscled the bill through the legislature, warning that restrictions must be instituted to improve the state’s economic climate and even create jobs.

Just the threat of outrageous jury awards or frivolous lawsuits is enough to give businesses pause about setting up shop in Ohio, proponents argue.

And capping awards would help stabilize skyrocketing insurance premiums, they say.

The lack of evidence of excessive awards shouldn’t be surprising because most lawsuits end up in settlements that are confidential, said Ty Pine, of the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice, a corporate umbrella group pushing the bill.

“From the small-business perspective, they can’t find justice and are held hostage by the threat of unlimited noneconomic and punitive damage awards,” Pine said.

Caps on damages should help stabilize the state’s insurance market too, Pine said. But some evidence indicates that caps affect insurance premiums only minimally.

Last month, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights released a document from the nation’s largest medical malpractice insurer, GE Medical Protective, that the company filed with the Texas Department of Insurance.

GE told regulators that non-economic damages are just a small percentage of a company’s payout for losses.

“When the largest malpractice insurer in the nation tells a regulator that caps on damages don’t work, every legislator, regulator and voter in the nation should listen,” Douglas Heller, the foundation’s executive director, said in a news release.

The Ohio legislature enacted limits on jury awards for medical malpractice cases in 2002, but so far, physicians’ malpractice insurance premiums keep rising. Proponents of the statute say little change will occur until the new law is challenged and is upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The bill under consideration, Senate Bill 80, passed the Senate last summer. It would limit the amount a jury could award for noneconomic damages like pain and suffering. And if numerous people were seriously hurt in a single accident, those victims would be lumped together as a single claim with a maximum award of $1 million.

State Rep. William Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, has been closely involved in negotiations on the bill because he oversees House Bill 350, the so-called “cheeseburger” legislation that protects food manufacturers and restaurants from obesity claims. When the House didn’t act quickly on SB 80, the Senate added SB 80’s tort-reform provisions to HB 350.

Seitz believes the bill should include a process for judges to review excessive verdicts.

“I think the goal will be to take the rougher edges off of the Senate version and modify it reasonably,” Seitz said. Easing limits on attorney fees, a higher ceiling on punitive damages and some adjustment on caps for damages are being discussed, Seitz said.

“I’m optimistic we will get a meaningful tort reform bill,” Seitz said. “Many members of the General Assembly do not feel like rolling this boulder uphill in the next General Assembly.”

Meanwhile, the interested parties are also looking to find a way to craft a bill that won’t let criminals, like a sniper, off the hook when they are sued by their victims.

“A proposal being kicked around is that if you plead guilty or are convicted of a crime that includes mental intent, you would not get the benefit of certain provisions of the bill,” said Pine, of the business alliance.

Chairman Oelslager agrees.

“People who are harmed should have a remedy. People don’t ask to be injured,” he said. “I want to develop a fair and balanced bill that allows businesses to be competitive but does not close the courthouse doors.”
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected] or call 800-228-8272

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