Pennsylvania Nears Final Vote on Tort Reform Bill

By | April 8, 2011

People who are awarded civil judgments against multiple parties would no longer be able to collect all of it from any single defendant under a bill that Pennsylvania Republicans in the state House moved near to a final vote on Wednesday.

The GOP maintained ranks to turn aside several amendments to the “Fair Share Act” bill before abruptly ending floor debate for the day with a procedural move that embittered Democratic leaders.

The bill would alter the state’s “joint and several” liability rules so that, in most cases, defendants who are deemed responsible for a percentage of a judgment would pay no more than that percentage.

The changes are widely supported by the business community and opposed by the state’s trial lawyers.

“Without question, our civil litigation system needs significant commonsense reform,” said Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. “People are tired of having to spend significant dollars to defend baseless suits.”

Juries sometimes rule that people who file lawsuits themselves share a portion of the blame. The most hotly debated amendment, sponsored by one of the few Republicans to cross party lines, would have abolished joint liability for any defendant whose percentage share is less than the plaintiff’s.

“It is good for the victim and it is good for society that people worry about being responsible for joining with others and causing harm,” said the sponsor of that amendment, Rep. Kate Harper of Montgomery County. “It leads to a safer, better society, and it is far better than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

After her amendment lost, Republicans turned to a procedure known as “calling the previous question,” sparsely used in recent years but already a mainstay of the current legislative session. That put an end to all debate on the bill and set up a final House vote that could come as early as Monday.

“To me, it’s just an outrageous abuse of their power,” Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said a short time later in the Capitol newsroom. “It won’t work _ we’re going to bring this to the people.”

Dermody termed the proposal “The Wrongdoer Protection Act.”

The bill provides exceptions for awards that are based on intentional misrepresentation, for intentional torts such as assaults, for defendants who are liable for more than 60 percent of a loss and for some hazardous waste or liquor code violations.

Democrats wanted to add additional exceptions, including one for cases involving sexual assault that they said would apply when, for example, a priest with no assets is largely responsible for child molestation and his religious organization can afford more than its percentage liability.

“I’m siding with victims in this case,” said Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored that amendment. Because of the GOP procedural motion, his measure was not directly debated, although its provisions were discussed earlier on the floor.

Republicans bristled at the suggestion their bill would effectively protect child molesters, and argued there is a fundamental unfairness when a lawsuit results in someone with a modest level of liability being forced to pay the whole verdict because they can afford it and the other defendants cannot.

“I take strong exception to the thought and idea that only the plaintiff can be a victim in a civil lawsuit,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester. “Defendants have been victims in civil lawsuits for years.”

Paul Lyon, spokesman for the Committee for Justice for All, an association of trial lawyers from northeastern Pennsylvania, said the bill would lead to many seriously injured people being undercompensated.

“It unfairly places the burden on the backs of injured people instead of the negligent defendants who caused the injuries,” Lyon said.

If the Fair Share Act passes the House, as seems likely based on Wednesday’s votes, it would be sent to the Senate for its consideration.

A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2002, but House Democratic leaders sued and state appellate courts overturned it on grounds it violated the Pennsylvania Constitution’s requirement that laws confine themselves to a single subject.

The General Assembly subsequently passed a replacement bill that then-Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed in 2006.

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