LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Legal Newsline) – Changes have been proposed to the compensation levels for attorneys and clients in jury trials, the maximum amounts of awardable damage rewards as well as limits to the power of the State Supreme Court.
All of these alterations come at the behest of state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-18) in her bill "An Amendment Concerning Civil Lawsuits and the Powers of the General Assembly and Supreme Court to Adopt Court Rules."
The bill (SJR8 #1) passed the General Assembly with several amendments March 1 and now awaits the decision of voters whether to approve or reject it via a referendum on Nov. 6, 2018.
Irvin’s bill looks to set a limit for contingency fees lawyers receive at 33.33 percent of the net recovery amount, with penalties imposed for going over that limit.
Also included in the bill are caps on awards handed down by juries for non-economic damages and punitive damages resulting in injury or death. Both forms max out at $500,000 per claimant, with punitive damage rewards being that limit or three times the amount of compensatory damages.
It has been reported that such a law would greatly benefit numerous businesses, including nursing homes and physicians by reducing medical malpractice insurance rates.
Arkansas Sen. Will Bond (D-32) told Legal Newsline that the cap was unfair and limited citizens’ fundamental rights for a jury reward based on a redress of grievances. In addition, Bond questioned the practical need for such a law, seeing as the state judiciary has no power of additur that, in many cases, causes reward inflations elsewhere.
“We [in Arkansas] do not have a significant issue with runaway jury verdicts,” said Bond.
The final item in the bill gives the General Assembly more say in the Supreme Court’s rules governing court pleading, practice and procedure and comes after the General Assembly had granted the high court the sweeping authority back in 2000. Irvin’s bill requires three-fifths of voting members to approve any amendment or repeal of these rules.
The motion, which caps four years of legislative maneuvering, came after a significant amount of discussion among lawmakers, according to Bond. Despite the time spent, the resulting ballot initiative has left some, like Bond, questioning the impact the law will have on the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches within the state.
“This is the wholesale takeover of the judiciary which is an issue. It puts the legislature over the judicial branch which is a huge concern of mine,” stated Bond.
The senator said that what bothered him the most was that there was a majority belief among the General Assembly that the judiciary should be treated as just another department of state government and not as a separate and co-equal branch as intended by the state constitution.
Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp is on the record as being opposed to the Irvin’s bill as it pertains to the high court. When questioned about the justice’s comments, Bond told Legal Newsline that he was not present during that hearing and could not comment on the testimony of the chief justice.
All of these changes, if approved, are set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Asked about the chances of the ballot being approved by voters in November 2018, Bond replied that it was “a little bit early” but that two or three months out it would become apparent which way the vote would go.
In the meantime, Bond said it was his hope that “people are paying attention.” The senator closed by saying that he believed, at the current time, people were a bit guarded about the General Assembly meddling in the courts.
Legal Newsline contacted Irvin’s office several times concerning her bill but received no response.