Business interests ranging from trucking and poultry to health care announced Monday they would form a coalition to raise funds and support a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit certain payouts in lawsuits.
Lawmakers, who for years have been supportive of limits on damages and attorneys' fees, commonly called tort reform, voted in the spring to have such rules put before voters as a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution. Their proposal, known as Senate Joint Resolution 8, also would shift the final rulemaking authority of the Arkansas Supreme Court to the Legislature.
Voters will decide the measure in the November 2018 general election.
Before then, voters are expected to witness extensive campaigning for and against the issue. On Monday, the first ballot committee was announced in support of that proposal.
Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, a group supported by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Medical Society, the Arkansas Poultry Federation, the Arkansas Health Care Association and the Arkansas Trucking Association, will campaign in favor of SJR8, according to a news release.
Likely to lead the campaign against the measure will be the Arkansas Bar Association, which unsuccessfully attempted to persuade lawmakers to vote against SJR8 earlier this year.
As recently as last year, attempts to enact lawsuit payout limits in Arkansas have fallen short. Caps were enacted by the Legislature in 2003, only to be declared unconstitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Referring to the history of failed attempts, Chamber President Randy Zook said in a statement that it was time to "level the playing field" for businesses, which he said can lose millions of dollars in punitive and non-economic damages in lawsuits.
As opposed to compensatory damages, which repay a loss suffered by the plaintiff, non-economic damages refer to claims that don't have a specific monetary value, such as pain and suffering. Punitive damages refer to damages intended to punish a defendant for wrongdoing.
If approved by voters, SJR8 would set a cap of $500,000 for non-economic damages, and $500,000, or triple the compensatory damages, whichever is higher, for punitive damages. The Legislature would be able to increase the limits. The proposal also would limit the fees attorneys get paid for winning lawsuits to a third of the total damages.
"The progress made on tort reform in 2003 has been stripped away, piece by piece, over the last 14 years by the Arkansas Supreme Court, making a constitutional amendment necessary," Zook's statement read.
The statement released by the State Chamber included the 496-word ballot title for SJR8, but did not otherwise mention a provision in the measure that would give the Legislature the authority to write the rules of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The rule-making provision had been a chief issue for the Bar Association, and Chief Justice Dan Kemp also has spoken out against it, calling it a separation of powers issue.
Last month, the Arkansas Bar Association registered its own ballot question committee, Defending Your Day in Court. Former Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Tuck, who chairs the committee, said the group will focus on the rule-making provision in its campaign over the next year.
As both groups raise money and spend it on the campaign, they will have to submit monthly financial reports to the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
Neither group has submitted its first financial statements. However, two other groups established to oppose SJR8, Liberty Defense Network and the Committee to Protect AR Families, have more than $650,000 cash on hand, according to filings.
Last year, a proposed ballot issue would have limited damages and attorneys' fees in medical lawsuits. More than $2 million was raised in total by both supporters and opponents before the Arkansas Supreme Court tossed the measure off the ballot for being poorly defined.
Metro on 10/17/2017
Print Headline: Business groups to support caps on lawsuit damages