April 16, 2003

Senate quietly advances controversial expansion of lawsuits

The Judiciary Committee of the state Senate has quietly approved and moved to the Senate floor a controversial trial lawyer-backed bill that would dramatically expand potential awards in lawsuits involving wrongful death.

The Business Council has staunchly opposed expanding the wrongful-death statute for many years. After the Senate action, The Council submitted a new legislative memo strongly opposing the bill, which would authorize compensation for grief and emotional loss in a wrongful death action.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Onondaga), who chairs the Judiciary Committee. When the committee met late in the afternoon on Monday, April 14, this bill (S.2994-DeFrancisco/A.6637-Weinstein) was not on the printed agenda. However, at the end of the meeting, it was announced that the bill would be considered.

After virtually no discussion, the bill was approved 14-0 with Sen. Dale Volker (R-Depew) and Sen. Steve Saland (R-Poughkeepsie) voting "without recommendation." The bill has been added to the Senate calendar.

Expansion of wrongful death is a long-time priority of the powerful trial-lawyers lobby because it would create new opportunities for new damages.

In its memo, The Council argued that the bill would increase liability insurance costs for most New Yorkers, as well as state and municipal governments. "Automobile, general liability, and medical malpractice insurance premiums could all be impacted by a proposal such as this," the memo said.

"The proposal would clearly open a highly speculative area for consideration by juries which will lead to much higher verdicts in those affected cases and would surely led to greater uncertainty and unpredictability in the tort system that we have previously identified and have tried to address in other legislative proposals," the memo said.

Assessing the economic impact of the loss in these cases "is a highly subjective task for a jury and could lead to astronomical verdicts," it added.

The bill is apparently at odds with recent Senate signals that it was open to tort reform, a long-time legislative priority of New York's large and small businesses, individuals, farmers, local governments, school districts, manufacturers, insurers, contractors, physicians, professional groups, and associations from throughout New York State.

For example, in early March, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno cited landmark research by The Business Council's research affiliate, The Public Policy Institute, in proposing several long-time tort-reform priorities. He argued that savings from tort reform would benefit all of society, especially municipalities, and that these savings are especially valuable at at time when governments at all levels are under extraordinary fiscal pressure.

His specific proposals include:

Also in early March, the Senate addressed another priority of the tort-reform movement by approving a bill to repeal New York's controversial "vicarious liability" laws. Under vicarious liability, companies that lease cars can be held liable for unlimited monetary damages if the cars are involved in accidents, regardless of fault.

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