PA Senate Passes Bill Abolishing Joint Several Liability

The Pennsylvania Senate has passed an inclusive measure (SB 1089) abolishing the hoary legal principle of joint and several liability, and replacing it with a recovery system based on establishing a proportional figure of a defendant’s percentage of liability.

The pressure to pass a reform bill originated with the ongoing crisis in the state’s health care system, which has seen medical malpractice insurance premiums for physicians, hospitals and other health care workers rise dramatically in recent years, while many insurance companies have ceased writing med mal coverage, citing growing losses in the sector.

The measure is not specifically limited to give relief to the health sector,. however, it purely and simply changes the law, affecting all business enterprises.

Under the principle of joint and several liability, which goes all the way back to English Common Law, any defendant who may have in some way been involved in causing the plaintiff’s injuries, may be charged in a lawsuit for compensatory damages. If found liable, any defendant, can be held to pay the the total amount of the damage award, even though their own participation may have been minimal. Plaintiff’s lawyers have used the doctrine for years to collect from “deep pockets,” i.e. rich or well insured, defendants.

As the Senate recognized, the doctrine inevitably increases insurance costs, broadens the spectra of possible defendants in any tort case, often bringing in fringe parties, who had little if anything to do with the activity that caused the injury. These costs are passed on to the companies and organizations which bear them, and ultimately to the consumer.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 40-9, including the provisions crafted by Sen. Hal Mowery (R-31) and Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-15) to implement a proportional system of recovery. It now goes to the House of Representatives.

The two Senators defended their provisions on economic grounds. “Passage of Senate Bill 1089 is about supporting economic development and preserving our tax base,” stated Mowery. “It’s about enhancing Pennsylvania’s ability to create and maintain jobs. It’s about providing our constituents with opportunity and security. And it’s about fairness. Joint and several liability is a job killer in Pennsylvania,” indicated Piccola. “This legislation is long overdue, and will finally bring fairness to our civil justice system.”