As expected, the Senate today approved the House-amended version of the proposed constitutional amendment aimed at discouraging personal injury lawsuits, or so-called tort reform.
The amendment caps damages — both punitive and for pain and suffering — at $500,000 and limits attorney fees to one-third of net damage awards. It’s been sold as a boon to the state business climate. Opponents say it restricts the right to a trial by jury, sets a low value on lives of children and the elderly, who can’t demonstrate economic damages, and encourages neglectful and abusive nursing homes, among others, because the risk of lawsuit is so diminished.
The amendment will be on the ballot in November 2018, barring a successful court challenge. I’d predict the likelihood of the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that the legislative ballot title is misleading, overbroad or otherwise defective is nonexistent.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers will likely spend heavily to defeat the amendment. Lawyers will be depicted as blood-sucking villains in the campaign to pass it by the chambers of commerce, nursing homes, medical lobbies and other corporate interests. The bribery case in which an Arkansas judge took campaign money in return for lowering a $5.2 million verdict against a nursing home could figure in advertising. In that case, a nursing home failed to follow a doctor’s orders for hospital care of a woman with a painful condition that proved fatal. The judge reduced the award to $1 million after a prolonged lawsuit that cost the plaintiffs’ lawyers a significant amount to pursue.
UPDATE: The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association distributed a release that said in part:
SJR8 represents the latest effort by corporate nursing homes and big insurance companies to limit the ability of the most grievously injured and harmed to challenge them in court. These entities have long sought special privileges that would place them above the law, unaccountable for the harm caused by negligence and abuse.
The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association says that the amendment will close the courthouse doors for countless injured Arkansans, and that it prioritizes profits over the rights and safety of the people.
“Just last week, CNN reported on an epidemic of rape and sexual assaults in our nursing homes, yet the Arkansas General Assembly still passed SJR8, which removes the ability of Arkansans to protect loved ones from abuse and neglect,” said Matthew Hass, CEO of ATLA. “We have in Arkansas powerful corporate nursing home owners and other special interests who have spent millions on politicians, working for years to rig the system. They want to evade accountability for understaffing their homes and fostering environments that enable sexual assault, abuse, and neglect. SJR8 will allow nursing homes to operate unchecked, which is great for corporate nursing homes and their lobbyists, but their residents will certainly suffer even greater harms when our best system of accountability – the jury trial – is taken away.”