By Rep. Josh Cockroft
Non-economic damages for pain and suffering is the focus of one piece of legislation conservative lawmakers hope to pass this legislative session. Unlike damages for lost wages, medical bills and other easily quantifiable costs, non-economic damages are hard to put a number on and have led to sky's-the-limit awards in lawsuits.
Most of us have heard of at least one of these lawsuits in which an individual won millions of dollars with a case that seemed worth much less. There was a McDonald's customer who spilled hot coffee on herself and was awarded millions. There was the case of a man who stuck his hand under a running lawnmower and became equally rich. Though we sympathize with an individual who has been injured, we do not necessarily think they deserve an obscene amount of money from a company, especially if they had a part in injuring themselves and it seemed arguable how much of the fault lay with the company.
Some may feel that little harm is done by a rich company having to pay out a large lump of money to an individual who has been injured. In reality, however, corporations don't pay these judgments: Their customers (you and I) do through higher prices. In addition, it is not only large companies that suffer. Doctors are one of the most common targets for lawsuits and it is documented that these lawsuits are a driving force behind higher health care costs. Now that some states have passed lawsuit reform, doctors have moved to those states rather than stay in places where they are given no protection from limitless claims. The Legislature has tried to focus their attention only on doctors in the past, but was limited by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that they cannot target a specific industry.
The legislation conservatives are pushing for will put a cap on non-economic damages, but takes into careful consideration the type of circumstances that would make that cap inappropriate. There are a number of circumstances under which the cap can be removed, including the death of the injured party and gross negligence on the part of the defendant.
Another bill will ensure that defendants remain responsible for the portion of damages for which they are at fault. Under current law, defendants can be responsible for paying a higher percentage of awards to plaintiffs, beyond the percentage of their fault, based on their ability to pay. Basically, the richest guy in the room is the one who pays all the damages, even if he is only 10 percent liable.
Caps on non-economic damages are a source of great contention. The topic of how much under what circumstances was passionately debated on the House floor. I personally believe the issue of caps for damages should be a conversation we should continue to have in the years to come because there are great arguments on both sides. But at the end of the day, the fact remains: We need to have lawsuit reform passed this year to stop abuses in the system that are hurting our business and health care climate.
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