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SC House takes away right to jury trial

Published on March 9th, 2010

The South Carolina House has passed another "tort reform" measure which is not necessary, most likely unconstitutional, and clearly arbitrary.  The Sun News had an article and it is very interesting what critics and proponents said.  The bill will place an arbitrary cap on how much a jury could award against reckless or intentional conduct.  The measure limits the amount juries could award to deter or punish a business for gross negligence. Punitive damages could be $350,000 or three times compensatory damages, whichever is greater.  The purpose of punitive damages is to deter or punish.

Opponents said multi-million-dollar lawsuit awards are extremely rare in South Carolina.  The executive director of the South Carolina trial lawyers’ association said a review of verdicts from courts in the state’s three largest counties – Richland, Charleston and Greenville – shows how extraordinary it is for a jury to award punitive amounts at all in this state. Of the 136 personal injury verdicts in those counties in 2007 and 2008, juries awarded punitive damages in seven of them, and only two of those involved more than $7,000, said Mike Hemlepp, executive director of South Carolina Association for Justice. He noted an amount seen as unfair could be decreased either by the trial judge or an appeal.

"Is there any evidence they’re saying, ‘We’re not coming because of tort law?’" asked Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark. "Tort reform is something people want until it’s their family member or friend who gets injured."

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, R-Columbia, acknowledged those numbers don’t indicate a problem.

Rep. Doug Jennings, D-Bennettsville, argued punitive awards are meant to discourage companies and people from blatantly disregarding how their actions may injure others, but the limits mean they won’t be discouraged from changing their ways.

Hemlepp said the measure is designed to squash cases from going to court. Civil lawsuits often involve clients who can’t pay lawyer fees upfront, which means lawyers won’t take frivolous cases. But since lawyers often get paid by taking one-third to 40 percent of the award, capping punitive damages means fewer cases will be taken.

The vote comes five years after the Legislature capped pain-and-suffering awards for medical malpractice lawsuits at $350,000.  Todd Atwater, CEO of the South Carolina Medical Association, said the rates of medical malpractice insurance are going down, as are the number of claims.

 

Joe Pioletti
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