An effort to limit certain damages in lawsuits in Arkansas has divided pro-life advocates, with some arguing the ballot initiative puts a price on human life, while others say it has nothing to do with defending the unborn and would help state residents and businesses.
Senate Joint Resolution 8, known as “Issue 1,” would amend the state constitution to limit punitive and noneconomic damages in lawsuits to the greater of $500,000 or three times the total damages awarded. It would also cap lawyer fees at one-third of the total damages.
The Little Rock–based Family Council Action Committee says opposing the tort reform is a pro-life issue, and the group’s leader, Jerry Cox, has been asking pastors in Arkansas to oppose the resolution. In particular, he laments the state of nursing homes in Arkansas and says those harmed by negligence need adequate recourse in the courts.
“What we have here is a case of what could have been good tort reform being changed into something that we believe puts a dollar value on human life,” Cox told me, “because what it does is it shields bad nursing homes from lawsuits when they cause an injury or a death.”
If voters approve the ballot initiative in November, the law would still allow unlimited economic damages to make up for a defendant’s lost wages or damage to equipment, but Cox said that the proposed $500,000 limit on punitive and noneconomic damages would prevent adequate compensation to people who don’t earn an income, such as children, the elderly, or stay-at-home mothers.
“They chose to write a measure that pretty much takes away the poor man’s key to the courthouse by putting all these restrictions on lawsuits that can be taken into court,” he said.
Proponents of the reform include four medical groups, the state’s trucking association, and An American Speaks, a Christian advocacy group.
Toni Rose, co-founder of An American Speaks, said Arkansas badly needs to attract businesses and healthcare providers, and limiting lawsuits over emotional or psychological damages would be one step in the right direction.
“I just don’t understand how anyone who has been fighting the pro-life battle for so many years could possibly dilute that message by making tort reform anything but an economic and political issue,” she said.
State Rep. Bob Ballinger, a pro-life Republican, supports tort reform in part because he thinks it would help combat what he called one of the most litigious business climates in the nation.
“We are almost dead last in Arkansas in so many different areas,” he told me. “Forty-eighth in access to OB-GYNs. We are dead last when it comes to access to emergency medicine. When it comes to specialists, we are near the bottom. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.” Some of his constituents, he said, live in rural areas and have to drive over an hour to reach a hospital.
Trial lawyers were able to dismantle a tort reform bill passed in 2003, but Ballinger said malpractice claims initially dropped after the law went into effect.
The ballot initiative is likely to pass, he said, adding that he thinks most pro-lifers are likely to vote for it: “When the facts are laid on the table, I think the citizens of Arkansas are generally supportive of tort reform.”