Fair Share Act passes Pa. House, ready to become law

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 27, 2011, 1:46pm


HARRISBURG, Pa. (Legal Newsline) - An amended version of a bill that will do away with Pennsylvania's joint and several liability doctrine is headed to Gov. Tom Corbett's desk.

On Monday, a full vote of the state House of Representatives was taken. The measure, amended Senate Bill 1131 or the "Fair Share Act," cleared by a vote of 116-83.

Last week, the state Senate passed the amended version of the bill by a vote of 32-18. The House had passed an earlier version of the legislation, House Bill 1, in April.

Now, with the full support of the House, the bill will be sent to Corbett, who is expected to sign it into law in the coming days.

The bill's supporters say it will keep employers and jobs in Pennsylvania, save tax dollars and help hospitals remain open.

"The Fair Share Act is commonsense legislation aimed at saving jobs," House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said in a statement Monday.

"Our intent was and is to protect every citizen's access to the legal system and his or her right to sue, while preserving the concept of 'responsibility matches fault.'

He continued, "Pennsylvania's courts must protect the rights of those who can be dragged into court by lawyers searching for 'deep pockets' and bring lawsuits against those minimally responsible, or not responsible at all."

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 Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry said in a statement Monday that it applauds state lawmakers for sending the legislation to the governor.

"This commonsense reform does not break new ground; it simply brings Pennsylvania into the mainstream with regard to financial liability. It reasonably reforms Pennsylvania's system of joint and several liability, which has been used by personal injury attorneys as a search for 'deep pocket' defendants, regardless of their degree of responsibility," said Lesley Smith, a spokeswoman for the Chamber.

"Consumers, job creators, doctors, hospitals and local governments will all benefit from this critical initiative to begin restoring balance, fairness and predictability to the Commonwealth's legal system."

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 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, lawmakers say.

"These lawsuits cost jobs by making employers afraid to expand or introduce new products for fear of being sued," Turzai said.

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

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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