Monday, April 6, 2009

Republican Liability Crisis is So Much Smoke...Researchers Say.

The last 12 months have been devastating for Republicans. Besides seeing their ideology crumble under a wall of false assumptions, creating a near depression, and losing dramatically in the 2008 elections, their tort reform myth has now been obliterated. According to an article in the Capital Times online:

UW report: WMC claims of excessive litigation in state are bogus. The contents of the report can be updated annually with new data.

Advocacy groups have long claimed Wisconsin's overly litigious climate costs state businesses money and keeps others from locating here in the first place. For the past few years, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business lobby, has made reforming the state's legal system one of its top priorities -- proclaiming that excessive litigation "is costing businesses and individuals billions of dollars, and is affecting our international competitiveness."

Not true, says a new study published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Law School that aims to "examine some of the persistent myths" about civil litigation. In fact, it says, the number of civil cases in which individuals seek compensation for personal injury and property damage fell 17.4 percent in Wisconsin from 1996-2007.

Challenging another frequent criticism, that Wisconsin is rife with trial attorneys, the 42-page report notes there are fewer lawyers per person in Wisconsin than in most states. Of neighboring Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, only Iowa has fewer attorneys per capita than Wisconsin.

Jim Pugh, a spokesperson for WMC, said … he finds its focus predictable. "It should come as a surprise to no one that the UW Law School is trying to say that we don't have enough litigation in Wisconsin," said Pugh.

The authors write that the goal of the publication "is not to provide answers but to dispel illusions about the system in favor of a realistic, if necessarily incomplete, picture of what is actually out there."

The idea of the report gained traction in the summer of 2007 after Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay, persuaded the state Assembly to eliminate all state funding for the UW Law School. Lasee reasoned that there were simply too many lawyers in Wisconsin already. "We don't need more ambulance chasers. We don't need frivolous lawsuits. And we don't need attorneys making people's lives miserable when they go to family court for divorces," Lasee said at the time. "And I think that having too many attorneys leads to all those bad results."

Some of WMC's efforts have focused on tort reform, such as restrictions on civil lawsuits and caps on damages. In its 2007-08 legislative agenda, WMC stated that "recent State Supreme Court decisions have thrown Wisconsin's economy into a liability crisis … We need to control excessive litigation, limit costs and restore fairness and predictability to our legal system."

Civil filings in Wisconsin state and federal courts increased by 34.2 percent from 1996 through 2007, but of those filings, the largest chunk, 60.9 percent, were in small claims -- mostly suits to collect debts. When Wisconsin's rising population is figured in, per capita tort filings dropped by 24.1 percent.

As for WMC's concerns about medical malpractice claims, the report cites data kept by the Wisconsin Medical Mediation Panels showing those cases also dropped -- by 34.2 percent between 1996 and 2007 -- even though the state's population and its number of doctors increased.

Additionally, the study reports that the National Center for State Courts collected comparable data about medical malpractice filings in 2006 for 15 states. Among these, Wisconsin tied for 14th in the per capita rate of medical malpractice filings, with four cases per 100,000 people. Comparatively, Iowa had nine and Michigan had 10 filings per 100,000 people.

If anything, WMC should be getting the word out that Wisconsin has a great business climate when it comes to liability laws.
State product liability filings rose slightly from 102 in 1996 to 104 in 2007. However, over that same period the number of such filings that ultimately went to trial in Wisconsin dropped from 23 to nine.

"So why, of all the risks that businesses face, has WMC focused on this tort liability?" asked (one of the authors). "I think it has something to do with the fact that tort liability is an easy issue for organizations to use to mobilize people. It's easy to dislike lawyers, right?"
If you have time, check out this report on Texas liability reform.

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