N.H. Gov. Lynch Vetoes Civil Damages Bill Opposed by Businesses, Towns

July 6, 2007

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has vetoed a bill that would have limited the number of parties against whom damage awards from civil suits could be apportioned.

“I cannot support this change in the law because it is unfair for a defendant with a low degree of fault to have to pay a disproportionately large share of the damages,” Lynch said in his statement accompanying his veto.

Lynch spent the last week meeting with parties on both sides of the bill before deciding to veto it.

Municipalities and business groups, including the insurance industry, opposed the measure, arguing it would have exposed them to paying more than their fair share of damages and would increase litigation costs.

The measure was backed by trial lawyers, who argued that it would have restored a system that they say was in place 20 years ago before state court rulings upended it.

It was sponsored by Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua, who is also a lawyer.

Under New Hampshire’s current system of comparative fault, the jury is instructed to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to each plaintiff and then allocate fault in proportionate share to anyone who contributed to the incident that caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. Fault may be apportioned against any individual or entity who was negligent and whose conduct was a substantial factor in causing the harm, including those that are parties to the lawsuit, parties who previously settled their lawsuits, or are immune from liability, or are not otherwise before the court.

The bill Lynch vetoed, HB 143, would have allowed the jury to allocate fault only between those that remain parties to the lawsuit at the conclusion of the trial. It would have prohibited the jury from apportioning fault to those who carry significant degrees of fault for the plaintiff’s injuries, but who either settled claims prior to conclusion of the lawsuit, or who are not parties to a particular lawsuit for other reasons.

In explaining his veto, Lynch also noted that the state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte believes that the change in law would have increased litigation costs and higher judgments borne by taxpayers

Lynch extended an olive branch to those pushing for the change.

“There may be steps that we can take to better ensure that injured victims are fully compensated under the law. I remain open to considering improvements to our existing statutory system of comparative fault, apportionment of liability and contribution laws,” he said.

The New Hampshire Municipal Association said in a bulletin to its members that it was “very appreciative” of the governor’s veto.

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