Pa. High Court Denies Reinstatement of Liability Award Law

By | October 2, 2006

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected an effort by two high-ranking Republican lawmakers to revive a business-friendly law that would have altered how civil lawsuit awards are paid.

In a one-sentence order released on Sept. 29, the court ruled unanimously that the Legislature violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by passing a bill that combined new lawsuit-liability rules and a requirement for DNA testing of sex-offender inmates.

The law would have changed the current liability system that allows people who win civil judgments against multiple parties to collect all of it from any one of the defendants.

After the law was passed in June 2002, House Democratic leaders H. William DeWeese of Greene County and Michael R. Veon of Beaver County sued to overturn it.

They won in Commonwealth Court in July 2005, after which Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair, and House Speaker John M. Perzel, R-Philadelphia, asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the law.

Commonwealth Court had said the DNA testing and the tort liability provisions should have been passed in separate bills that each related to “one single overarching subject,” as the state constitution requires.

DeWeese spokesman Mike Manzo said the bill was “jammed through with (the Republicans’) typical Metroliner mentality.”

“Worse than the way it was passed, in our judgment, was the fact that it was the most extreme version of tort reform that one could possibly have dreamed,” Manzo said.

The General Assembly has since passed a replacement bill, largely supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, that would have forced defendants to pay only their proportion of liability, unless they were at least 60 percent liable or they acted intentionally.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed that legislation in March, saying it was unfair to victims and that he wanted a better balance of “the equities between our businesses and the victims of negligence.”

Rendell said he favored a different bill, narrowly defeated in both chambers, that would have lowered defendants’ liability when plaintiffs are partially responsible for their own injuries or damages.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said the veto occurred after Rendell had expressed his support for the bill — and noted he called on Veon and DeWeese to drop their court challenge.

“He said he supported the legislation and then he flipped to help out his special-interest lawyer friends,” said Steve Miskin, Smith’s spokesman.

Jubelirer spokesman Dave Atkinson said he was “disappointed but not surprised. Obviously, we attempted a remedy earlier and ran into an unexpected veto from the governor.” He predicted lawmakers will revisit the issue in the future.

Rendell campaign spokesman Dan Fee said Rendell will support “the right changes.”

“The governor vetoed that bill after being urged to do so by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who were afraid it would put more drunks on the road,” Fee said. “We’ll stand with them and Republicans can stand against them, we’re fine with that.”

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