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Saved by the Court

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It was the one percent against the 99 percent when the legislature took up "tort reform" in 2003, and the one percent prevailed easily. Since then, the Arkansas Supreme Court has been knocking holes in this unjust and unwise statute. We see again that the separation of powers is a wonderful thing.

Corporations, the Medical Society, the Chamber of Commerce, the Poultry Federation — they were united in support of a bill making it more difficult, if not impossible, for the poor to win a sizeable legal judgment against the rich. Legislators were so intimidated by this fearsome coalition, they didn't even ask the proponents to make a case for the bill. At committee hearings, opponents presented strong witnesses and sound arguments against "tort reform." The other side didn't say much more than "call the roll." The proponents, for example, couldn't find a single insurance-company executive to testify that "tort reform" would bring down the cost of insurance, though that was supposed to be a principal reason for the bill. People in the insurance business knew better than to tell so flagrant a lie in so public a forum. They knew the real purpose of the bill was to shield wrongdoers from a jury's justice.

Legal experts said at the time that the legislation was unconstitutional and would eventually be found so by the Supreme Court. Two attorneys general had said the same thing about similar legislation, previously considered. But the legislators weren't interested, and they were shameless. The "tort reform" bill passed on a near-unanimous vote.

Various provisions of the "tort reform" law had been stricken by the Supreme Court before last week's decision, in which the Court threw out the law's million-dollar limit on punitive damages. Associate Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson wrote for the majority that the Arkansas Constitution allowed the legislature to limit the amount of recovery only in matters arising between employer and employee. The Court thus refused to overturn a $42 million award for punitive damages that was made in Lonoke Circuit Court to a group of farmers who sued a provider of contaminated rice. The trial judge in the case, Phillip Thomas Whiteaker, also had declared the million-dollar limit to be unconstitutional.

The president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce has said, predictably, that the Supreme Court decision will discourage "job-creating entrepreneurs and business leaders." The supporters of "tort reform" are more law evaders than job creators. They tell the common man and woman "just give up your rights, and we might find low-paying work for you." It's not a good deal, and thanks to the Supreme Court, the people of Arkansas don't have to take it.

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