Amended tort reform bill passes Pa. Senate

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 22, 2011, 8:26am

Mike Turzai

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Legal Newsline) -- The Pennsylvania Senate passed Tuesday an amended version of a bill that will do away with the joint and several liability doctrine.

The measure, amended Senate Bill 1131 or the "Fair Share Act," cleared the Senate by a vote of 32-18.

The state House of Representatives passed an earlier version of the legislation, House Bill 1, in April.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said at the time that the bill will keep employers and jobs in Pennsylvania, save tax dollars and help hospitals remain open.

"This simple, reasonable and responsible lawsuit abuse reform will help put an end to deep pocket frivolous lawsuits and is a necessity if we want to improve Pennsylvania's economic and health care climate," Turzai said in a statement.

"The current system is susceptible to abuse by plaintiff lawyers seeking co-defendants with deep pockets such as large employers, hospitals or state and local governments."

The joint and several liability doctrine requires a defendant to pay the share of a verdict that a co-defendant can't afford, no matter what percentage of liability is assessed to both. It is up to the paying defendant to seek repayment from the non-paying one. If the non-paying one has no assets, the paying defendant gets nothing after footing the bill.

The doctrine is designed to protect plaintiffs, but defendants and tort reform groups are not fans.

The Fair Share Act was originally passed in 2002 and then-Gov. Mark Schweiker signed it into law. It did away with the doctrine, though a defendant that was found at least 60 percent liable was still on the hook for the whole amount if its co-defendants couldn't pay.

However, Democratic Rep. William DeWeese mounted a legal challenge to the way the bill was passed. It was coupled with legislation regarding DNA sampling and in 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the bill should have been focused on a single subject.

With Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in office, the bill was never reinstated. He vetoed the legislation in 2006.

Now, former Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, is occupying the Governor's Office, and passing the Fair Share Act was one of his stated priorities during his campaign.

According to the Attorney General's Office, more than 1,300 tort cases are currently pending against the state. The majority of these cases involve the state Department of Transportation where an uninsured or under-insured driver caused death or bodily injury.

The plaintiffs are just looking for someone to pay, regardless of fault, Turzai said in April.

"Enacting this reform measure into law sends a strong message that Pennsylvania will no longer tolerate people who want to abuse the system for their own financial benefit," he said. "The Fair Share Act is a commonsense measure that restores fairness and balance to Pennsylvania's judicial system."

The amended SB 1131 now goes back to the House for a vote and then on to Corbett, who is expected to sign it into law.

Pennsylvania is one of only nine states to have not modified or abolished the system of joint liability.

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