Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell has vetoed legislation designed to scale back the obligation of defendants to pay damage awards in some civil lawsuits.
Rendell explained his veto of Senate Bill 435 by maintaining that the bill did not go far enough to protect the rights of victims in cases of negligence. The Governor said the bill would have appropriately limited the doctrine of joint and several liability, but was not balanced and urged continued bipartisan work on the subject.
Lawyer groups and business and insurance advocates have battled over the legislation, which was geared to replace a 2002 law that was never enforced before it was struck down by the Supreme Court last year.
Supporters said it would improve the state’s business and insurance climate and protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits. However, opponents said it would severely limit the ability of injured victims to get compensation.
The bill, which passed the House 118-81, would prevent victims from suing multiple defendants with one lawsuit. In addition, defendants would only have to pay the portion of the damages proportionate to their liability, unless they were at least 60 percent liable or their actions were intentional.
The legislation passed the Senate in December.
Under current law, victims can sue multiple defendants and be reimbursed for an entire damage award. If a defendant does not have enough money to pay their share, then the other defendants must pay that share.
Lawyers, many Democrats and Rendell, along with victims groups, had pushed legislation that would lower financial penalties for defendants in cases where the plaintiff bore some responsibility for an injury or damage. But in an earlier vote, the legislation they supported narrowly failed, 99-100.
Referring to the 200-year-old joint and several liability doctrine in his veto message to the Legislature, Rendell said: “It has become apparent in our industrialized society that this doctrine has produced inequitable and unfair results that have had a detrimental impact on businesses.”
The Governor cited a case several years ago where a Pennsylvania company, Crown Cork & Seal, was held responsible for 100 percent of the damages in an asbestos class action when it had caused less than three percent of the injuries. The other companies that had caused the vast majority of harm were bankrupt and out of business, leaving Crown Cork & Seal with the responsibility of paying nearly $250 million in damages.
“For these reasons, I said in my campaign for Governor that I believed Pennsylvania must enact some limits on the doctrine of joint and several liability to protect Pennsylvania businesses from such unfair and inequitable results,” he said.
During the debate on this issue, the Governor said there were bipartisan attempts in both chambers of the General Assembly to achieve an appropriate balance, but both failed narrowly. He said, though, that while the proposals were imperfect, they sought to achieve a fair balance.
“Just as our businesses have given me telling examples of the unfairness and harm that is caused to them by the current law, consumer organizations have given me just as telling examples of how victims – many times the children of parents killed by negligent actions – would be left without adequate compensation for their loss.
“I believe we must find a better way – a law that will balance the equities between our businesses and the victims of negligence.”
In his veto message, the Governor said legislative leaders should join him to create a better bill that strikes the appropriate balance by convening a meeting of business leaders, union leaders, representatives of consumer groups, legal associations and other interested parties
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