Gov. Scott Walker wants you to know Wisconsin is “open for business,” and a “job friendly legal environment” is a part of that. But with the passage of a bill that will dramatically alter laws governing civil lawsuits, it is becoming increasingly clear that “job friendly” readily translates to “businesses first” and “anti-consumer.”
The tort reform bill, which passed Thursday on a 57-36 vote along party lines and now only awaits predictable approval by Walker, will limit punitive damages to $200,000 or twice the amount of compensatory damages and provide other new means to combat unnecessary lawsuits, among dozens of other changes. Republicans and businesses have touted the changes as essential to improving the climate for companies whose operations are hampered by the constant fear of being sued. Advocacy groups charge the bill – which would make it more difficult to sue a nursing home for neglect and increase the time and effort needed to get lay experts like police officers and sexual assault nurses on the stand – will limit victims from pursuing fair legal measures and compensation.
The potential for legal action should prompt companies to step back and truly consider if their practices are safe, not reach for their calculator to weigh risk against their bank account. The governor and his fellow Republicans should pursue alternative tort reform strategies that would even more effectively combat frivolous lawsuits – a message everyone can get behind.
Critics may be right that lawsuits that maliciously or outrageously target companies are uncommon in the state of Wisconsin, but they do occur in the United States. Take, for example, Pearson vs. Chung, in which an administrative law judge sued his dry cleaners for $54 million after they allegedly lost a pair of pants, rendering their claims of “same day service” and “satisfaction guaranteed” impossible. Dubbed the “Great American Pants Suit,” the case went to trial in Washington, D.C. in 2007 and, unsurprisingly, ended with the judge ruling in favor of the dry cleaners and sanctions against Pearson.
Focusing on increasing a court’s ability to leverage these sanctions would be an effective measure to dissuade those with improper motives while at the same time allowing those with real claims to move forward. Pro-business does not always equate to anti-consumer, and it is possible that for every private citizen who unfairly targets the deepest pockets there is someone with a real right to empty them. We ask that Walker and the Legislature allow the courts to continue to regulate what goes on within their walls. Such liberty, however, could be compounded by thoughtful, fair legislation that balances what is best for an ailing economy’s needs and consumer rights.