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story.lead_photo.caption A graph showing Donations to Arkansans for Jobs & Justice - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: Arkansas Ethics Commission

A bloc of business associations plans to spend thousands of dollars to build public support for a proposed constitutional amendment next fall that would reshape how personal-injury cases are resolved in the courts.

Between now and the November 2018 general election, Arkansas voters will be the focus of the campaign, and will hear arguments for and against limits on damages and attorneys' fees, commonly called tort reform.

Some lawmakers are worried that the number of lawsuits filed by people claiming they were injured or harmed by business activity has created a litigious environment that dissuades new companies from doing business in Arkansas. Personal-injury attorneys, however, say any change in the law that makes it more difficult to sue would undermine the voices of everyday Arkansans up against companies with significant resources.

"I hope folks see this is a bait-and-switch trap," said Sach Oliver, an attorney in Rogers. "It's really about politicians trying to put a cap on the value of life."

Plaintiffs will still be able to win money from insurance companies in court if they prove that property was damaged, or if they had to spend on medical bills, as a result of a company's negligence.

The ballot measure aims to reduce the amount of money attorneys may collect in a civil suit against a company and to eliminate opportunities for awards for pain and suffering.

"There is no way you can put a value on life or put a value on pain and suffering," said state Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, who is a primary supporter of the legislative resolution that puts this issue before voters. "But attorneys create a value on life [in court]."

All sides are preparing for an emotionally charged debate in 2018. In October, a committee was formed to promote the proposal. Called Arkansans for Jobs & Justice, the campaign is made up of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Medical Society, Arkansas Health Care Association, the Arkansas Poultry Federation and the Arkansas Trucking Association. More are expected to join in the near term and throughout next year.

This kind of movement has swept across the nation, and in 2003, the medical industry in Arkansas tried to push for it. That ball stopped rolling when the Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas voters would need to approve the changes with a constitutional amendment.

Carl Vogelpohl, the manager of the Jobs & Justice campaign, called the latest attempt a continuation from 2003. The difference, he said, is other industries are involved, encompassing a wider range of Arkansas businesses that are affected by personal-injury lawsuits.

Arkansas Ethics Commission records show various supporters of the Jobs & Justice campaign have given about $516,000 collectively. The leading cohort so far is the medical industry, at $345,000, followed by Stephens Investments Holdings, which gave $75,000. Vogelpohl, a political campaign veteran, anticipates this will be a multimillion-dollar undertaking.

In a recent mailer, the state trucking association asked its members to donate toward Jobs & Justice. Already, the group has contributed $45,000, and Shannon Newton, its president, said truckers can expect more money to flow into the campaign's war chest.

Commercial transportation is a magnet for personal-injury lawsuits. Truckers feel particularly vulnerable to pain-and-suffering lawsuits, and small and large companies alike have begun spending more to install on-board event recorders to be able to prove in court what exactly happened before and during a traffic crash.

"We have companies who just [settle in court] to make it go away," Newton said. "And because there is no cap on contingency fees, the attorneys have nothing to lose."

So far, the campaign has spent less than $200, none of which has been on advertising, according to documents. The information campaign will kick into high gear in 2018 and initially will consist of meetings with chambers of commerce and other business groups.

"If we just educate people, voters will make the decision they think will make sense based upon facts," Vogelpohl said. "Like any campaign, I'm sure when we get to the silly season next October, there will be all sorts of misinformation."

SundayMonday Business on 12/10/2017

Print Headline: More state industries allying with move for lawsuit limits

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