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Published: Friday, 5/2/2003

Ohio GOP pushes plan for tort reform

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Just weeks after a new law capping jury awards in medical malpractice cases took effect, Ohio Republicans prepared yesterday to take the next step.

A bill introduced in the Senate would limit how much plaintiffs could collect in punitive and noneconomic damages in product liability, personal injury, and other lawsuits. It would also limit liability of manufacturers for their products to no more than 10 years and make Ohio the first state to establish medical criteria for asbestos claims.

“We must make certain Ohio has a fair, predictable system of civil justice that protects injured parties without forcing employers into bankruptcy or, worse yet, putting them out of business forever,” Gov. Bob Taft said.

The General Assembly passed medical malpractice limits after Mr. Taft's former lieutenant governor, Maureen O'Connor, was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court. The business community has banked that her election has reversed the 4-3 majority that struck down prior tort-reform efforts.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Stivers (R., Columbus), said Ohio can't afford to wait to see how the malpractice law fares before the court.

“I was very shocked to hear that this was billed as an economic impact bill for businesses,” said Peter Brodhead, Ohio Trial Lawyers Association president. “What it really is, is an economic impact bill against women, children, and senior citizens.”

Philip McWeeny, vice president and general counsel of Owens-Illinois in Toledo, criticized that someone who has been exposed to asbestos can sue without symptoms of disease. The firm, which has not manufactured asbestos-containing products for 44 years, has been sued 300,000 times. Nearby Owens Corning, which Mr. McWeeny said has been sued 400,000 times, is in bankruptcy proceedings.

“Up to 80 to 90 percent of the lawsuits filed in the United States of America for asbestos ... are filed by people who, by any common-sense definition of the word `sick,' are not sick,” he said.

Ohio is among several states considering a requirement of a physician diagnosis of asbestos-related disease before an action may be filed.

“You have to keep in mind that for anyone who has been exposed to asbestos, particularly if you have the markers of asbestos exposure by X-ray evidence, you are at significantly greater risk for lung cancers, and mesotheloma, which are almost always fatal,”Mr. Brodhead said. “That has been held by the courts to be a compensable cause of action itself.”

Recently U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving asbestos-exposed Norfolk Southern Corp. railway workers, ruled 5-4 that the fear of contracting asbestos-related cancer could be sufficient to mount a claim.

The Senate bill would:

w Cap jury awards for pain, suffering, and other noneconomic damages in the most serious cases, those involving loss of limb or permanent disfigurement, at $1 million per injury. Up to $500,000 of that could be collected by the injured person and the rest by his family.

w Cap jury awards for non-catastrophic cases at $500,000 per injury, up to $350,000 of which could be collected by the injured person.

w Limit punitive damages, those imposed by a jury to punish a defendant, at no more than the amount awarded for economic damages.

w Set no limit on economic damages - lost wages, medical costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses.

w Limit liability for product liability and construction-related claims to 10 years from the date the product or service was delivered. This would not apply to asbestos claims.



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