MIKE MASTERSON: One bad issue

Posted: August 28, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

As we edge toward the November elections, I'm feeling the urge to reiterate my convictions from previous columns about proposed constitutional amendment Issue 1.

This matter is far too crucial for the good folks of our state to simply assume everyone understands what a bad and misguided concept it is to allow an arbitrary price tag of $500,000 on the value of human life.

I believe it is a big mistake to amend our existing Constitution, which protects individual rights without restriction when we are wronged, to accommodate those sued for neglect and other affronts that claim life and limb. It's a colossal error for the people to help limit the amount anyone can collect based on a figure set by special-interest groups intent upon limiting full accountability for their detrimental actions and inactions.

Proponents of Issue 1 couch their efforts under a proposal for "tort reform," a pleasant-sounding attempt at changes to a legal industry that too often has its share of justifiable criticisms.

But I believe there is anything but pleasant reform proposed in this amendment pushed primarily by the Arkansas trucking and hospital associations, the Arkansas Medical Society, the state's nursing home industry, and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

They argue with a straight face that the amendment will protect their interests and businesses from frivolous lawsuits, thereby allowing economic growth and lower health-care costs. Interesting that these are the very businesses that often wind up as defendants in civil cases for wrongful treatment and situations that cause harm and death. Don't they all have attorneys?

I've always been under the impression that Arkansas is not a frivolous-lawsuit kinda state. And when those types of suits are filed, judges have the power to dismiss such nonsense on those very grounds.

It also is beyond a terrible idea for Issue 1 to allow state politicians, aka the legislative body (of which the corrupt and greedy practices of several now-former members have lately made headlines) to make significant decisions in the legal arena that could likely benefit them.

That's just waaay too much influence over our lives given to good ol' boys who regularly enjoy favorite top-shelf beverages, high-dollar meals, unique personal opportunities and generous campaign contributions courtesy of special interests.

Termed "The Price on Life Amendment" by opponents, this wrongheaded piece of political maneuvering is not only unnecessary, it is immoral in my view and that of Family Council President Jerry Cox and many others statewide because it firmly limits the amount an injured person can receive in civil actions.

I appreciated comments from Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, when she said the amendment's arbitrary cap of $500,000 on non-economic damages as well as a cap on punitive damages is not based in reality.

For instance, Issue 1 would ensure a lost leg or arm is worth no more than the arbitrary figure of $500,000. But so are both legs and arms, as is severe brain injury. One size doesn't fit all.

"In real life this means that if a 40-year-old successful businessman is killed negligently, then his life could be worth millions because you could calculate his current earnings and multiply them out for the future," said Mimms.

"If a stay-at-home mom, a child or infant, a retired veteran, an individual with Down Syndrome or other genetic disorder who isn't employed, or a nursing home resident who dies as a result of abuse or someone else's error or negligence, then those lives are all capped at a value never to exceed $500,000. The jury simply can't award a family more, even if it wanted to do so. Think of your loved ones; would you ever put a price tag on their lives?"

Ultimately, she correctly continued, Issue 1 says some lives are more valuable than others, and "your life's value is determined by what you earn at the time of a tragedy. It says that Arkansans on juries can't hear the facts and award a family $1 million for the abuse of their child who was left brain-damaged or the neglect of their elderly mother in a nursing home. Issue 1 is one more step in devaluing life in a culture where we simply can't afford any more slips down that slope."

If this weren't bad enough, Issue 1 also would wrongheadedly transfer ultimate overview of the rules of court procedures from the Arkansas Supreme Court, where they always have constitutionally belonged, to legislators. That frightening concept alone ought to be enough to send a chill up any Razorback's spine.

It was our senators and representatives who voted last year to even place this amendment on the fall ballot. Wonder why?

Now try to imagine a gaggle of good ol' boys hunkered down in some Little Rock lounge with friends and supporters in mind to rewrite our state's court procedures.

I'll close today by saying I sincerely hope Arkansans will wisely vote this troubling amendment down come Nov. 6, despite the costly ads trying to convince them otherwise. They should, in their own best interest and that of their children and loved ones, preserve our constitutional rights.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 08/28/2018