Oregon trial lawyers push legislation

Chris Rizo Mar. 3, 2009, 2:12pm

Sal Esquivel (R)

SALEM, Ore. (Legal Newsline)-Oregon trial lawyers, on the heels of their Senate victory to boost public lawsuit caps, have asked state lawmakers to increase the statute of limitations on product liability cases and allow plaintiffs' attorneys to seek increased damages in personal injury cases.

But a leading Republican lawmaker told Legal Newsline that making it easier to sue in the Beaver State is not what Oregon needs, especially in light of its ailing economy.

"We've got to get a handle on this," state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said on the flood of lawsuits filed in state courts annually. "But trial lawyers are going to go after tort reform (measures) because go figure-they get paid by the percentage," based on what they win for their clients.

The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association made their push to make it easier to sue Monday at the State Capitol during their annual Lobby Day. The group met with Esquivel and other lawmakers.

On product liability, the group is backing Senate Bill 307, which would extend the statute of limitations on product liability cases from the current eight years to 25 years.

"It's already pretty easy to sue in Oregon," Esquivel said. "I am not sure we need to make it any easier. That is not going to help Oregonians."

The Portland-based plaintiffs' attorney group says it also wants the state Legislature to force insurers to pay attorneys' fees in workers' compensation cases. The group says it is unfair that currently claimants' attorneys are not compensated in cases where they prevail.

Lawyers also asked legislators to repeal reciprocal attorneys' fees, making defendants responsible for their own attorneys' fees no matter the outcome in certain cases, including those involving securities, mortgage lending and UTPA law.

Trial lawyers are also seeking to change the order in which Personal Injury Protection (PIP) reimbursements are made.

Currently, the group says, insurance companies are reimbursed before consumers who are hit by an at-fault driver. The trial lawyers say they want consumers to be paid for all damages before their insurance company is paid for its PIP payments.

The proposal is outlined in House Bill 2325. A separate bill, House Bill 2326 also deals with PIP payments.

The plan calls for a more than doubling of PIP wage reimbursement and property damage awards. The trial lawyers say they want the monthly wage reimbursement raised from $1,250 to $3,500, and property damage reimbursements doubled to $20,000.

The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association's Lobby Day followed what was seen as a major win for the group last week, when the state Senate agreed to increase the cap in public liability cases.

On Friday, the Democrat-led Senate handily approved legislation that could allow plaintiffs to sue state and local governments for more money than currently allowed under the state's public liability cap.

Senate Bill 311 would increase government liability caps so juries could award more money in cases where a government agency was found to be negligent. The Senate approved the bill 24-5. The five no votes came from Republicans.

Esquivel said he signed on to the measure as a co-sponsor.

Acknowledging that the bill is "not perfect" he said it will protect the state and local governments. Down the road he said he hopes the Legislature will afford similar protections to Oregon's doctors in private or group practice.

The Senate-approved legislation calls for increasing the liability cap $100,000 a year to a maximum of $1.5 million by 2015 for individual claims against state government. The plan would increase the cap to $3 million for all claims from a single incident. The bill also would eliminate the distinction between economic and noneconomic damages.

Lower caps would be allowed for cities, counties, school boards and special districts, under the changes to the Oregon Tort Reform Act backed by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

The bill follows a landmark 2007 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that found the state's current $200,000 cap to be inadequate.

In its decision, the high court affirmed a 2006 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the family of a brain-damaged child to sue Oregon Health and Sciences University for more than $17 million in connection with injuries Jordaan Michael Clarke suffered at the hospital as a three-month-old baby.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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