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Published: Thursday, 12/9/2004

Deal helps passage of tort reform

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Ohio lawmakers last night reached agreement on a business-backed bill restricting how much plaintiffs may collect for pain and suffering in most civil lawsuits.

The agreement was brokered in last-ditch meetings between House and Senate Republican leaders after Senate President Doug White (R., Manchester) upped the pressure by announcing his chamber would not come back next week as planned.

That would leave any unfinished business, including the Republicans' top priority of tort reform, to die with the official close of the two-year session on Dec. 31. The decision stunned House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) and prompted Gov. Bob Taft to announce he would call the General Assembly back next week for a rare special session intent on passing a single law, campaign finance reform.

The House planned a late-night vote that would satisfy the Senate's demand for at least some cap on pain, suffering, mental anguish, and other intangible noneconomic damages in personal injury, product liability, and other litigation. The cap would be $500,000 per incident, $350,000 per individual, for noncatastrophic cases, covering most courthouse cases.

The Senate dropped its demand for an additional $1 million cap on noneconomic damages in catastrophic cases, such as those involving loss of limb or permanent disfigurement.

Mr. Householder said the House version would contain no catastrophic cap, but would include a unique provision requiring a judge to step in and lower a jury award he considers excessive. He could not add to it.

The bill would also limit punitive damages against business, but would impose no limits on how much plaintiffs may receive for lost wages, medical bills, and other out-of-pocket expenses.

"Ohio is about to begin to reclaim its place as an excellent place to do business,'' said Ty Pine, chairman of the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice. "This is a major factor, a great leap forward.''

The Ohio Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional tort reform legislation with caps on noneconomic damages.

The bill would all but ban suits against restaurants and food manufacturers for obesity-related health problems. Mr. Householder said it would also narrowly open a window designed to specifically protect three companies - Owens Illinois, Crown Cork & Seal, and RPM - from asbestos lawsuits stemming from companies they absorbed prior to 1972.

"The law they intend to pass is designed to protect the shameless and harm the blameless,'' said Fred Gittes, president of the Ohio Trial Lawyers Association.

The special session on campaign finance reform would begin next week.

"We would certainly hope that if the governor calls the legislators back to deal with one specific issue, campaign finance reform, that will provide impetus to a resolution to getting a good bill enacted," said Mr. Taft.

Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), the bill's sponsor, said he was confident the special session would result in passage of the 224-page bill.

The bill began in the Senate as a requirement that nonprofit groups that have anonymously bankrolled ads trying to influence Ohio Supreme Court elections must come out from cover. It also would have banned corporate and labor money from such efforts.

Since then, a House committee has expanded the disclosure requirements to every elected office but dropped the ban on corporate and labor money.

Lawmakers are also reportedly considering increasing how much individuals and political groups may contribute to campaigns from $2,500 per election to $10,000. The same cap would apply to state candidate funds of county political parties, which have been used in some counties to launder money for candidates to avoid individual contribution limits.

"The banks are closed," said Mr. Gardner.

In other action, the House voted 68-23 to send Mr. Taft a bill raising the bar for workers to make an intentional tort claim stick. Workers would have to prove their employers intended to injure them or at least believed their act or lack of action would likely lead to injury.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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