Monday, July 5, 2004

Limit on suits debated

Bill caps injury awards at $1M, controls age of products in actions

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Architect Jack Pottmeyer was called by an attorney interested in suing over an accident at a school his firm designed - in 1933. Tool maker John Lambing is grieving the death of his son two years ago in an industrial accident.

The two are on opposite sides of a legislative debate continuing this summer over limiting the ability of injured Ohioans to sue for damages.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled a similar set of limits unconstitutional in 1999, saying they violated Ohioans' right to a trial by jury.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican, would cap pain-and-suffering awards at $1 million for the worst accidents. It would also prohibit most injury lawsuits involving products older than 10 years.

Forty-nine other states have some form of limits, Stivers said.

"Ohio stands alone in all 50 states as the only state with perpetual liability for product designers, architects and builders," Stivers said.

Supporters say the bill is needed to address large verdicts that make it difficult for businesses to anticipate legal costs. Opponents say the legislation would deprive Ohioans of a court resolution.

Pottmeyer said an attorney called him two years ago looking for Charles Marr, the long-deceased founder of Pottmeyer's firm, Mansfield-based MKC Associates Inc.

The call involved a potential lawsuit over a fall at a school the firm designed in Harrison County in 1933, he said. "The caller was clearly disappointed and noted that, 'Well, since he's dead, I guess we won't sue him,' " Pottmeyer said.

In 1998, MKC was sued after an older man fell from a portable platform after leaving a basketball game at a Morrow County high school. The man died later from complications from an ankle injury, Pottmeyer said.

In 1975, Pottmeyer's company designed the platform holding bleachers where the man sat during the game. Although the company eventually was dropped from the suit, Pottmeyer said he spent $5,000 to $10,000 in legal fees.

"When you get into these things you're not innocent until proven guilty, you're guilty until you can prove you didn't do it," Pottmeyer said.

John Lambing, 53, of Batavia said if people don't have the ability to sue over longer periods of time, companies won't design buildings and equipment to last.

His son, John Lambing Jr., died in October 2002 when a piece of machinery on a lathe became loose and hit him in the head. The machine was installed in 1987. The family's suit over the accident is pending in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

The Ohio Senate passed Stivers' bill last summer, but it has languished in the House. House Judiciary Chairman Scott Oelslager is holding numerous hearings and won't schedule a vote until after the November elections.

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