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Tort Reform 10 Years Later: Is It Working?
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A decade ago, Ohio passed so-called tort reform laws which severely limited jury awards in negligence and malpractice cases. Supporters say the laws have helped Ohio’s economy; victims say it lets wrong-doers off the hook. Here’s the story of one woman affected by the legislation.
It was during a Bible study that Jess said she met Brian Williams, the new minister of Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Delaware. She was 15 years old. Williams was 42.
“My grades were falling at school, and my guidance counselor thought it was because of unresolved issues at home,” Jess said. “So she advised me to go talk to my pastor at church because she knew I was big into church.”
During that meeting, Williams raped Jess.
Because Jess is a sexual assault victim, we’re only using her first name.
Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery. He’s serving an 8-year prison term.
Jess sued the Sunbury Church where Williams was the pastor and where they rape occurred. Jess settled that case for $90,000.
She also sued another church, the Delaware Grace Brethren Church, which recommended Williams for the Sunbury position.
In that case, a Delaware jury awarded her more than $3.6 million. The bulk of the award came in pain and suffering. But state law caps non-economic losses, in most cases, to $250,000.
A judge reduced Jess’ total award to $310,000.
John Fitch is Jess’ attorney.
“To me it’s something that’s very disturbing. I’ve called it a moral outrage,” Fitch said. “And I continue to feel it’s a moral outrage. We don’t need to cap the damages of children who are raped in this state.”
Tort reform has been described as a pendulum; in whose favor it swings depends on which political party controls the legislature.
Ten years ago, then-Governor Bob Taft, a republican, signed two major tort reform provisions into law. One capped pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases; the other limited non-economic awards in other cases.
“There was a big thrust to try to improve the economy of Ohio,” Columbus attorney Terrance Miller said.
Miller has defended businesses sued in product liability cases. He said the laws provide predictability for companies.
“And not just big businesses, and certainly not just insurance companies, small business owners,” he said. “Anybody who could be subjected to a very large award in a tort suit which could have the effect of crippling or terminating their business.”
The National Federation of Independent Business in Ohio played a role limiting awards. The NFIB’S Chris Ferruso said tort reform is critical to small business owners because, again, it provides predictability.
“That’s been reflective through an increase in certainly carriers in the state willing to write liability insurance for small business owners. And I think we can all agree competition drives price down. It is a cost of doing business,” Ferruso said.
Doctors pushed hard for the limits. The Ohio State Medical Association’s Tim Maglione said large civil awards drove up malpractice insurance rates and caused some doctors, particularly specialists, to quit their practices.
“It really became an access to care issue.”
Maglione said the legislation is working. He said insurance premiums have dropped by more than 25 percent.
“We are not hearing from physicians today, like we did 10 years ago, that they are having to stop providing services to their patients because they can’t get affordable liability coverage,” Maglione said.
But Jess’ attorney John Fitch said the arguments are bunk.
“The spin they put on it sounds good, but the reality is cases like this where very deserving victims have their awards slashed and profits, as in this case, flow directly to the insurance industry,” Fitch said.
Attorney Terrance Miller, who supports tort reform, admits the policies are not perfect, especially as they relate to arbitrary limits.
“I do understand the concerns about how this applies in certain individual situations,” Miller said. “And it may be that there would need to be further thought about an additional exception to the cap, although I think it would be very difficult to implement that.”
Jess continues to move forward with life. She expects to finish college in January and has hopes to attend the Police Academy. But her past looms in the shadows in the form of an on-going appeals process and nightmares.
“I just wish I could get over it and not let it affect me at all,” she said.