Pennsylvania House Passes Tort Reform Bill

By | April 12, 2011

Pennsylvania House lawmakers have passed a major tort reform bill, an agent-supported move that sets up a vote in the Senate that could happen as early as this month.

The tort reform bill, also called the Fair Share Act, is an overhaul of civil liability rules in the Keystone State, where current law allows a single defendant to be held fully liable for the actions of other defendants. Reformers say that system is abused by plaintiff’s lawyer who go after defendants with deep pockets — like insurers. Proponents of the current system say it’s more favorable, since it forces defendants to sue each other to settle liability apportionments, while leaving plaintiffs indemnified more quickly.

It’s a peculiar quirk sometimes called the “1 percent rule,” since it’s conceivable a defendant can be found 1 percent liable for causing an injury, but be forced to pay 100 percent of any damages.

Lawmakers, chiefly Republicans, have tried to pass tort reform for years in the state, which is home to what Americans for Tort Reform ranked as the number one “Judicial Hellhole” in the nation: Philadelphia, where the group says civil courts routinely hand out lopsided verdicts, encouraged by the state’s liability rules. But tort reform efforts have stalled in recent years thanks to ruling by the state’s top court in 2005 and a veto in 2006 by former Gov. Ed Rendell.

The house passed the bill by a vote of 112 to 88, with several democrats voting along with republicans. The measure heads now to the Senate, where the judiciary committee has already had a hearing and collected testimony on tort reforms, although it has not voted.

The bill would first need to pass the committee before heading to the full senate floor. That could happen as early as this month, although lawmakers in Harrisburg are still working on budget deals, which could back the timeline up a few weeks or months before a vote could happen.

If it does pass the Senate, it would likely have support from Gov. Tom Corbett, a republican and former attorney general who has said he would support tort reform efforts in the Keystone State.

Kari Kissinger, government affairs director for the Independent Agents & Brokers Group (IA&B), said the state’s trade group for agents is optimistic the bill would pass. “We were very pleased that a few democrats crossed the aisle and very thankful for the support of all the lawmakers who voted for it” she said.

But it won’t pass without a fight. Tort reform critics have begun focusing their efforts on blocking the bill in the Senate. The Pennsylvania Association for Justice, a trial lawyers’ group, said the measure “would overturn a proven doctrine that protects innocent victims of negligence (and) puts profits, primarily of insurance companies, ahead of safety and full compensation for innocent victims…. it will profit insurance companies at the expense of the public by shifting responsibility for future care of victims from wrongdoers to taxpayers.”

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