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    Wis. Rulings Prompt Businesses to Fight

    BY JR ROSS
    08/14/2005

    MADISON, Wis. -- Businesses are preparing to launch a $2 million campaign to fight a series of state Supreme Court rulings they fear are making Wisconsin an easier place to sue doctors and manufacturers.

    They want lawmakers to counter some of the rulings with legislation, and, they say, they want to educate voters on what they calls one justice's "votes in support of frivolous lawsuits."

    Wisconsin implemented several laws in the mid-1990s in an attempt to limit jury awards for such non-economic damages as pain and suffering in malpractice and liability cases.

    But last month, the state Supreme Court threw out the limits on medical malpractice awards. The next day, it cleared the way for a Milwaukee teen to sue several makers of a lead paint pigment his attorneys claim made him mentally retarded _ even though they can't prove the manufactures had any ties to the paint that may have sickened him.

    The court earlier this year also lowered the requirements that plaintiffs must satisfy to receive punitive damages, awards meant to punish a defendant.

    "Every CEO and top executive in America is now reading that Wisconsin is a dangerous place to operate a business because you're getting sued out of business," said Jim Pugh, spokesman for the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. "That's why it's such a big deal."

    The head of the state's trial lawyers says the concerns are overblown.

    "The Supreme Court said there was no rational basis and no evidence to support caps as a remedy to those problems," said Dave Skoglind, president of the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers.

    Caps on damage awards of varying types have been put in place in more than half of U.S. states.

    President Bush has also called on Congress to pass medical liability reform, saying he wants to place a limit of $250,000 on non-economic damages, or the pain and suffering portions of malpractice awards. Legislation that would limit damages for medical malpractice passed the House last month for a third year, but the Senate has so far declined to pass a bill that would cap punitive damages.

    Health care and business officials say the $350,000 cap Wisconsin lawmakers put into place a decade ago helped keep down insurance premiums for doctors _ savings passed onto patients _ and created access and quality superior to other states.

    A legislative committee will study medical malpractice laws in response to the court's decision. Bills addressing the other court decisions are being discussed and some have suggested that constitutional amendments are needed to limit the court's ability to review some liability laws.

    Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has not said whether he supports those efforts.

    A group opposed to the recent state Supreme Court rulings is also taking an interest in Justice Patrick Crooks, who ruled with the majority in all three cases.

    Crooks has announced he will seek another 10-year term. Several potential opponents have indicated they may run against him, but none has jumped in the race for sure so far.

    Cameron Sholty, the state director of the business coalition FreedomWorks, said the $2 million campaign is a target and it was too early to tell how much could be spent during next year's Supreme Court race.

    However, a race last year in Illinois could be one indication of just how heated and expensive the campaign could get.

    The top two candidates for the open Illinois Supreme Court seat spent a combined $9.3 million in what experts say became the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history. The Republican winner was heavily supported by doctors and business groups looking to prevent frivolous lawsuits and limit jury awards, while his Democratic opponent's money came largely from trial lawyers.

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    On the Net:

    Wisconsin FreedomWorks: http://www.freedomworks.org/wisconsin

    by JR ROSS on 8/14/05.