Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Lawsuit cap debate breaks into TV ads

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio trial lawyers are going on the offensive, armed with tragic stories from accident victims who say people like them would be hurt by court reforms under debate in the Ohio House.

But the effort is unlikely to have much impact.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, on Tuesday said he fully expects to pass a bill this year that could limit how much juries award for non-economic damages.

Supporters hope the bill improves Ohio's economic climate by reducing insurance and legal costs for businesses. Opponents, including trial lawyers, argue jury caps are unconstitutional and unnecessary.

"Whenever you have a bill that affects 11 million Ohioans, there's a lot of passion involved," Householder said.

All sides continued working on a compromise Tuesday afternoon. The House has not moved the bill since the Senate passed it in June 2003.

Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, has proposed replacing the bill's current $250,000 cap on "pain and suffering" for most injuries with a requirement that judges perform a more probing inquiry of whether juries awarded excessive damages.

He said it would provide the courts more flexibility.

Seitz said his proposal is based on a model approved by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington, D.C.-based association of conservative state lawmakers.

The Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers on Tuesday unveiled a new statewide television ad.

The ad features a Columbus woman and her daughter who, when she was 19, was struck by a drunk driver and suffered severe brain damage.

In the ad, Deborah Smith says caps in the reform bill will make it difficult for a lot of victims and their families who must deal with a lifetime of medical bills.

"They're taking victims and making victims out of them again," Smith said during a morning press event, describing a bill that, in its current form, also would cap punitive damages at $100,000.

Smith and a handful of accident victims from around the state said Tuesday they believed the settlements they received from their accidents would have been lower had the reform bill under debate now been in effect.

Even though the bill allows plaintiffs to recover full medical costs, unforeseen and expensive medical expenses over the victim's life often crop up, they said.

With caps on non-economic and punitive damages, some argued, there would not be enough to cover it all.

Trial lawyers continue to argue to lawmakers that there is no proof jury caps are necessary to curb runaway jury awards or frivolous lawsuits in Ohio.

Rep. Scott Oelslager, R-Canton, chairman of the committee hearing the civil reform bill, has asked county judges and several public and private organizations for proof of frivolous lawsuits or bloated jury awards that are hurting businesses.

"I have seen very little evidence so far that there's any kind of outrageous problems in this state," he said.

Seitz, a key architect of court reform, said evidence of a problem is tough to find in Ohio because there is no good way to get a handle on what's really driving up insurance costs: lawsuit settlements, many of which are confidential.

"I believe as a practicing lawyer of 20-some years that settlement patterns have gone up because people settle to avoid the 1-in-100 chance they would be wiped out by an excessive verdict," he said. "We're trying to inject more certainty into the legal system."


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