Lawmakers push new round of limits on jury awards

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Legislation to be introduced next month would limit the size of jury awards, four years after the Ohio Supreme Court declared such restrictions unconstitutional.
The goal is to remove the uncertain nature of the current law, which allows companies to be hit with huge verdict awards, said Sen. Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican pushing the plan.
"The key for me is to take away the unintended consequences in the civil justice system," he said.
Stivers' proposed legislation would cap pain-and-suffering
awards at $1 million when a company is sued, as in the case of an injury caused by a defective product.
His plan will be modeled on caps in a new law that limits
damages in medical malpractice cases.
The limits have strong support in the GOP-controlled House and Senate. Gov. Bob Taft also supports the plan.
Stivers and supporters say juries are awarding too many
multimillion dollar awards that hurt businesses and force them to raise prices to cover the cost defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits, Stivers said.
Opponents, including trial lawyers, say caps harm a jury's
ability to punish a company for selling harmful products and reward victims who suffer serious injuries.
"Corporations just don't like being responsible for people they injure or kill," Peter Brodhead, president of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, said in a statement. "What we really need to do is change to a system to better protect the people who work for those corporations and those who buy their products."
Stivers also would make it easier for judges to throw out
lawsuits they deem frivolous and punish lawyers who file them.
His proposal is the latest major attempt to change Ohio law
regarding jury verdicts following the Ohio Supreme Court's 1999 decision that the law violated the required separation of powers between the courts and the Legislature.
The new law capping pain-and-suffering damages in medical
malpractice cases took effect earlier this month. It caps damage awards for injured patients at $350,000 for most claims and $500,000 for injuries causing permanent disability or damage.
If more than one patient is involved, such as a mother and her baby during a birth, damages would be capped at $500,000 in most cases and $1 million for those considered catastrophic.
Backers said the law was necessary to keep doctors, whose
malpractice insurance premiums can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year, from leaving the state or retiring.
Opponents say insurance companies are the culprits, not the victims of malpractice.
Rep. John Williamowski, a Republican from Lima, is also pushing legislation to reduce frivolous lawsuits.
"The overwhelming majorities of cases are legitimate and are proper to be resolved by our courts and juries," he said earlier this month. "However, no one benefits from the filing of a truly frivolous lawsuit."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)