Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BRIAN FANNEY

Af­ter more than an hour of de­bate, the House voted 66-30 Mon­day for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would limit civil-law­suit pay­outs.

Se­nate Joint Res­o­lu­tion 8 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Moun­tain View, is gen­er­ally fa­vored by busi­nesses, in­clud­ing the med­i­cal in­dus­try, whose of­fi­cials say ex­pen­sive law­suits make it dif­fi­cult to pro­vide goods and ser­vices at rea­son­able prices — in­clud­ing much-needed health care in ru­ral ar­eas.

SJR8 is gen­er­ally op­posed by lawyers who say the amend­ment puts a cap on the value of a hu­man life, re­duces the abil­ity of the pub­lic to hold busi­nesses ac­count­able and al­lows law­mak­ers to in­ter­fere in court rules.

If the Se­nate con­curs with the amended ver­sion of SJR8, the amend­ment would be re­ferred to vot­ers in the Novem­ber 2018 gen­eral elec­tion.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R- Hindsville, the House spon­sor of the res­o­lu­tion, said the mea­sure en­sures fair­ness.

“The pur­pose of this is to end ex­tor­tion that’s hap­pen­ing now in Arkansas,” he said. “Busi­nesses are be­ing ex­torted be­cause they come in, they’re faced with: Do I go ahead and de­fend this even though I know it’s a friv­o­lous law­suit? Or do I pay it be­cause in the end a jury may very well slap on me a $10 mil­lion judg­ment and I can’t af­ford that?”

But Rep. Dou­glas House, R-North Lit­tle Rock, said the amend­ment would con­strain a lawyer’s abil­ity to rep­re­sent in­di­vid­ual Arkansans against large cor­po­ra­tions by lim­it­ing contin­gency fees.

“I was look­ing in the Bi­ble yes­ter­day. Je­sus didn’t have many nice things to say about lawyers,” House said. “Then I looked a lit­tle bit closer, and it was the lawyers for the rich and pow­er­ful that he was fuss­ing at — not the plain­tiff’s lawyers — not the peo­ple who rep­re­sented the com­mon folks.”

The amended ver­sion of SJR8 would place a cap on noneco­nomic dam­ages at $500,000. It would limit puni­tive dam­ages to $500,000 un­less the to­tal amount of puni­tive dam­ages is within three times the amount awarded for com­pen­satory dam­ages, which is the amount of money needed to re­place what is lost.

The res­o­lu­tion would al­low the Arkansas Supreme Court’s rules to take ef­fect with­out a leg­isla­tive vote, but law­mak­ers would be al­lowed to amend and re­peal court rules as well as adopt new rules with a three-fifths vote. Cur­rently, law­mak­ers do not have a role in court rules.

The pro­posed amend­ment lim­its contin­gency fees for at­tor­neys in civil law­suits, lim­it­ing them to one-third of the amount of net re­cov­ery ob­tained through a set­tle­ment, ar­bi­tra­tion or judg­ment. A contin­gency fee is a sum that a lawyer re­ceives as a fee only if the case is won.

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