State Courts Strike Liability Limits

By William Glaberson N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, July 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

State Courts Strike Liability Limits


William Glaberson N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


More than a decade after states began enacting laws to cut back big jury awards and curtail injury lawsuits, state courts across the country are overturning one measure after another, concluding that Americans have a powerful right to settle their disputes in court.

Top courts in states like Illinois, New Hampshire, Kentucky and, this month, Indiana and Oregon, have relied on provisions of state constitutions like guarantees of fair access to the courts to strike down all or part of the new laws that were passed under the banner of "tort reform." The new liability laws make it more difficult to bring some suits and seek to limit how much people can collect in accident, malpractice and other injury cases.

The highest courts of at least seven states have struck down all or part of new liability laws in the last three years. Dozens of new challenges to such laws are working their way toward state supreme courts across the country, including in Wisconsin, Alaska and Colorado, and a major decision is expected soon from the Supreme Court in Ohio, which enacted a sweeping new liability law two years ago. The cases focus on such state constitutional guarantees of "open courts" or the right to a jury trial.

In this rancorous second phase of the battle over the liability system, at least 87 decisions by state courts at all levels have found flaws with laws that have been enacted since the mid-1980s.

"The state courts are invalidating huge parts of the tort reform legislation to the consternation of supporters of tort reform," said professor Mark Geistfeld of New York University Law School. "There is much more judicial hostility to this kind of legislation than anyone was expecting."

The laws have also been upheld by lower courts across the country, with judges taking sides in one of the country's fiercest but least noted legal wars. In a January decision, the Virginia Supreme Court, one of the few top state courts to affirm the new laws recently, said a law limiting damages in malpractice cases passed muster under that state's constitution. But legal experts on both sides of the issue say the momentum is clearly on the side of the critics of the new laws.

In its July 15 decision striking down a law limiting to $500,000 the amount of damages injured people can recover for pain and suffering, the Oregon Supreme Court said that state's constitution "prohibits the Legislature from interfering with the full effect of a jury's assessment.

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