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Published: Friday, 12/10/2004

Ohio legislators pass lawsuit award limits

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Even as it made another stab at restricting lawsuit jury awards, the Ohio General Assembly was already anticipating a court challenge.

The bill sent to Gov. Bob Taft early yesterday morning includes a clause allowing immediate appeal of a court ruling declaring any provision unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court has struck down prior attempts, most recently in 1999.

"How is it pro-business to pass a bill that we know is going to be declared unconstitutional?" asked Rep. Jamie Callender (R., Willowick), an attorney and one of just two House Republicans to oppose the bill.

The Senate approved the business-backed bill 19-11 along party lines after the surprise decision of President Doug White (R., Manchester) to end the legislative session.

That forced House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) to bring the bill to a rapid vote, although he insisted the shorter timetable didn't force House Republicans to make concessions they wouldn't have made eventually anyway.

Meanwhile, Mr. Taft, in response to the Senate's decision to leave town, formally issued a proclamation yesterday declaring a special legislative session beginning Monday and potentially lasting through Dec. 31 to deal with the single issue of campaign finance reform.

With just half an hour of debate and after cutting off Democratic attempts to amend it, the House voted 65-32 in favor of the tort reform bill just before Mr. White's imposed deadline of midnight Wednesday. Five Democrats joined the Republicans in supporting the measure.

Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) characterized the bill as "less perfect" than what the House originally hoped to pass but a marked improvement over the "wretched and grotesquely unfair piece of legislation" passed by the Senate last year.

Unlike that version, the final bill sets no cap on jury awards in catastrophic cases, such as those involving loss of limb or permanent disfigurement. But it requires the judge, at the request of the defense, to review an award and reduce it if the judge finds it to be excessive.

Less serious cases would be capped at $500,000 per incident, up to $350,000 of which could go directly to the injured person and up to $150,000 to family members or others with claims related to the same injury.

The bill also limits punitive damages against most businesses, all but bans lawsuits against restaurants and food manufacturers for obesity-related health problems, and sets a 10-year time limit for filing product liability and construction-related lawsuits.

"A fair and effective civil justice system is an essential part of promoting and sustaining an attractive business climate in Ohio, " said Mr. Taft, who is expected to sign the bill.

The bill includes a provision narrowly tailored to benefit two companies - Crown Cork and Seal, with a plant in Toledo, and RPM, with a plant in Medina. The language is designed to limit their liability from asbestos claims related to companies they absorbed prior to Jan. 1, 1972.

Toledo-based Owens-Illinois fell short in an attempt to add language providing it protection. The glass container manufacturer argued the language helping Crown Cork, a competitor and co-defendant in some asbestos lawsuits, is unfair.

"Essentially, this said [Crown Cork] doesn't have to pay any more in asbestos claims," said Tim Greenwood, former state lawmaker and attorney for Owens-Illinois.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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