A business-backed proposal to change court evidence rules failed on March 21 in the Kansas House before members gave first-round approval to a bill increasing the damages allowed in personal injury lawsuits.
The measure advanced by the House on a voice vote would increase the state’s $250,000 limit for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering to $300,000 in July and to $350,000 by July 2022. The legislation also would give judges greater discretion in deciding whether to allow trial testimony from purported expert witnesses.
House members expect to take another, final vote on the measure today. The Senate approved the bill last month, but its version contained an additional change, lifting a ban on having juries hear evidence of whether alleged injury victims already have losses covered by insurance or other sources. Critics of the repeal said it could shield wrongdoers from being held fully accountable.
The House voted 82-33 to delete the change from the bill, and senators will have to either accept the change or negotiate a compromise. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, influential among the GOP conservatives who control the Legislature, was willing to accept a higher cap on non-economic damages in exchange for both changes in evidence rules.
“We do not support the bill in its current form,” said Chamber President and CEO Mike O’Neal, a former House speaker.
Legislators imposed the cap on non-economic damages in 1988 to reduce awards in medical malpractice and other personal injury lawsuits and keep insurance costs in check for businesses and health care providers.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a medical malpractice lawsuit in 2012 that the cap is constitutional, but a majority of justices said they were troubled that the cap hadn’t been adjusted for inflation. Business and medical groups fear the $250,000 cap would fall in a future lawsuit.
But the Kansas Chamber argues that raising the cap will increase insurance premiums, and pushed for the changes in evidence rules. The current ban on juries hearing about alleged victims’ other sources of compensation allows alleged victims to be doubly compensated, first by insurance companies, then by juries, the chamber contends.
“We owe this to our citizens, to keep insurance premiums down,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican and chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, which approved the Senate’s version of the bill. “Kansans seek fair treatment rather than big money.”
The Kansas Bar Association and the state’s trial lawyers association strongly opposed the change, arguing juries also don’t hear evidence that defendants have their damages paid by insurance. They said ending the ban would punish victims who are responsible enough to obtain insurance and could lessen the damages paid by, among others, drunken drivers who cause serious injuries.
“We ought to re-label this act and rename it as the Drunk Driver Protection Act of 2014,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat and an attorney.
Some conservative Republican attorneys also opposed the change for similar reasons, led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican. House GOP leaders routed the bill away from Kinzer’s committee, even though most of its members are attorneys or former judges.