Beaten In Legislature, Tort Reform Fight Continues

Beaten In Legislature, Tort Reform Fight Continues
“Just because the session is over doesn't mean the war is over,” said Matthew Hass, executive director of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.

Even though legislation involving tort reform failed to make it out of the General Assembly last month, attorneys are pushing forward with the idea.

“Just because the session is over doesn’t mean the war is over,” said Matthew Hass, executive director of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.

Hass said he is working on setting up a group with the Arkansas Bar Association, trial and defense attorneys and leaders from the business and medical communities “to figure out what the rules of civil procedure should be and what they mean.”

Attorneys were nervous when Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, introduced Senate Joint Resolution No. 5. The legislation would have taken the powers “to prescribe rules of pleading, practice and procedure and rules of evidence” away from the state Supreme Court and give them to the General Assembly. But it didn’t make it out of the Committee on State Agencies & Governmental Affairs.

It also would have needed approval from Arkansas voters because it would change the state Constitution.

Williams said SJR5 was in response to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s gradual whittling away of tort reforms adopted by the Legislature in 2003.

One of the key features of the Civil Justice Reform Act that has since been struck down was a $1 million cap on punitive damages.

Williams said business groups supported his legislation. He said tort reform is needed because the surrounding states have it.

“I think it’s imperative that we do the same thing if we’re going to stay competitive,” Williams said.

Williams fears trial lawyers hoping for a big judgment will descend on Arkansas and start suing hospitals and doctors because there isn’t a cap on damages.

Williams said the medical community has told him that it needs some stability and predictability from the law.

“And we currently don’t have that in our court system today,” he said.

But Williams’ legislation was not the way to go about it, said Charles Harwell, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, which opposed the resolution.

“We didn’t feel it was proper separation of powers to have rule-making by the Legislature for the judicial branch,” Harwell said.

Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who is an attorney, said he didn’t support SJR5 either.

“I thought [the legislation] was problematic and could result, at best, in politicization of the judicial system and, at worst, corruption of it,” he said.

He introduced his own Senate joint resolution, which would have capped punitive damages at five times compensatory damages. But he couldn’t get a hearing on the item.

“I think most people want tort reform,” Hutchinson said.

Hass said that he is making plans to gather all interested parties to form a task force to craft tort reform.

He said he doesn’t have a timeline yet for when that might happen or what will come out of the meetings. The goal of the talks will be to reinstall features of the Civil Justice Reform Act.

Once all sides agree on the reform, then the rules could be taken to the state Supreme Court to make the changes, Hass said. But more than likely, the General Assembly in two years would have to approve parts of the reform, Hass said.