Line item in Doyle’s budget would raise liabilities for businesses

A line item in Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-2011 state budget could drastically change the outcome of civil court cases in the state and may greatly endanger the state’s small to medium sized businesses, opponents to the change say.

Doyle’s budget would change the state’s provision for joint and several liability, if it is signed into law. Current state law mandates that a defendant be found at least 51 percent at fault to be found liable. However, Doyle’s budget proposes that a defendant, whether a corporation or individual resident, could be liable if they were found at least 1 percent liable.

“If you’re a manufacturer of a bicycle and someone is injured on that bike… and if the (jury) finds the bike company 1 percent responsible, they can be required to pay 100 percent of damages,” said Bob Fassbender, spokesman for the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council Inc. (WCJC). The council was formed to represent Wisconsin employers facing litigation.

“This (legislation) is after deep pockets – manufacturers and other businesses – which plaintiff lawyers will attempt to find, to find someone a little bit responsible so they can get those deep pockets into court and get a settlement," Fassbender said.

Bill Smith, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), said that if the state’s provision for joint and several liability is changed, it will present two significant problems to the state’s business community.

“This could make every Main Street business vulnerable to lawsuits and it destroys the predictability we want to have in our civil justice system,” Smith said. “This restores unpredictability in our state – it puts every small business in jeopardy of being caught in a lawsuit.”

The change will cause raise insurance premiums, both Smith and Andrew Franken, president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, said.

“Back in 1995, a lot of changes were made that brought more sanity to our (legal) climate in Wisconsin,” Franken said. “This turns the clock back, which will jeopardize every manufacturer, church or charity that will be subject to lawsuits that go down to one percent of occurrence.”

The Wisconsin Association for Justice, formerly known as the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers, said the change will ensure that residents and their health insurance providers are not left without protection after a car accident or other damages.

“We are at a time in our history when we need to revisit the playing field with it comes to the rights of consumers,” said Mark Thomsen, president of the association. “There have been a lot of changes made over the past couple of decades that have tipped the playing field against the consumer in many ways. This change in the law will help restore fairness in the law for consumers.”

A Doyle administration spokeswoman agreed with Thomsen.

"The provision addresses a fairness issue by taking the burden of the costs to care for severely injured people off of society and onto the people at fault," said Carla Vigue, deputy press secretary with the Doyle administration. 

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