Farmers, businesses and anyone who owns property will be threatened by increased lawsuit abuse under a provision in Governor Jim Doyle’s budget.
Called "joint and several liability," the provision would require businesses or individuals to pay up to 100 percent of the cost of a lawsuit even if a jury says they were as little as 1 percent to blame.
Under present law, if you are found 1 percent at fault, you are responsible and liable to pay 1 percent of a judgment awarded to an injured party. The person that is 99 percent at fault has to pay their share. That’s fair and reasonable. But a provision in the governor’s budget proposal will change that.
Farmers could literally lose their farm and business owners might have to close their doors if they are a victim of this unfair proposal. This bill denies fairness and equity to those that have worked hard to build up a business or acquire property.
Support for this comes primarily from the trial lawyers. They argue that injured parties should be compensated for their injuries and loss. Yes, injured people should have the opportunity to sue and recover for their losses, but the money should come from the people that are responsible.
Under the governor’s proposal, if the person that is mostly responsible for injuries has inadequate or no insurance, then the other party with insurance, property or assets will be forced to pay. Shifting the responsibility from those that are mostly at fault to those that have virtually no fault is unfair and punitive.
This provision, if it becomes law, could make a farmer or business owner responsible for 100 percent of the cost of someone else’s action.
Of all businesses, farmers are among the most at risk from the lawsuit abuse the budget provision invites. Farmers may not make a lot of money. But, because they require a lot of land and equipment to make a living, they can be targets for the predatory lawsuit abuse this legislation encourages.
A plaintiff’s attorney might argue that the farmer’s large combine sitting along the roadside may have momentarily distracted a careless and speeding driver who then drove through a stop sign and severely injured someone. A jury may say the farmer is 1 percent at fault and award the injured party $1 million. If the driver has inadequate, little or no insurance or assets, then the farmer is responsible for the balance of the jury award. After the farmer’s insurance company pays its limit, then the farmer can start selling his land, machinery and cattle so that he can satisfy the judgment. This will put him out of business. Under current law, the farmer would have been responsible for only 1 percent, or $10,000, and the farmer likely would have had insurance to cover that amount.
There are two ways to prevent this. One is to buy millions of dollars of liability insurance coverage. The other is to call your state senator and state assembly person and tell them you want this out of the budget.
This proposal is bad for farmers, bad for business, bad for people that have assets and bad for Wisconsin.
Jim Tlusty is president of the Wisconsin Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.