A supreme decision Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

This year brings one of the most important elections for local business owners. There is a very real -- and potentially ongoing -- threat to being able to build and grow a business if the current environment does not change.

Most people will assume I am referring to the presidential election. I'm not. The more important battle, at least from a business owner's perspective, is being fought right here in Ohio for arguably the most powerful job in state government: Supreme Court justice.

The court has taken on an increasingly anti-business slant in recent decisions that should raise alarms in the minds of business owners throughout the state. The main reason it doesn't is that the major media outlets spend their time reporting on Supreme Court issues that impact individuals, not those that impact businesses. Of course, what is a business but a collection of individuals banded together with common economic interests?

So what, exactly, has the court decided of late? Try these examples.

  • An employee killed in an auto accident is entitled to underinsured/uninsured motorist coverage under the employer's policy, even though the worker was NOT driving a company vehicle and was NOT on company business when the accident occurred. (Scott-Ponzer v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 1999)

  • Supervisors and managers may be held personally liable under state discrimination laws, potentially resulting in individual discrimination suits and defense costs for all supervisors in a company's management hierarchy. (Genaro v. Central Transport Inc., 1999)

  • Employees who suffer purely psychological injuries on the job may bring common law action against their employers, effectively extending a company's liability beyond the existing workers' compensation system. (Bunger v. Lawson Co., 1999)

The court also overturned tort reform legislation that would have curtailed the outrageous punitive and noneconomic damage awards being dished out by juries.

If you think these kinds of decisions don't impact business, think again. Better yet, just ask the Michigan Chamber of Commerce what it thinks. This summer, our neighbors launched an advertising campaign to lure businesses out of anti-business Ohio and into pro-business Michigan.

Here's what one of its ads said, under a photo of a storefront with a going-out-of-business sign:

"We understand the Ohio Supreme Court has rejected reasonable legal reform. In Michigan, we know a good legal system is fair to consumers, families and businesses. ...When it comes to legal reform, Michigan uses common sense."

As much as I hate to admit it, the Michigan chamber hit it right on the head: The Ohio Supreme Court lacks judicial restraint. Rather, we are saddled with a group of judges whose judicial activism has led to a number of antibusiness rulings, such as overturning tort reform legislation. These judges have been the majority in all of the decisions mentioned above.

Fortunately, we have the ability to change what is happening. Justices Alice Robie Resnick and Deborah L. Cook are up for re-election this month. Resnick is one of the most anti-business of them all. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce gave Resnick a pro-business score of 18 percent. Cook's rating was 59 percent.

Resnick's opponent, Judge Terrence O'Donnell of the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals, offers a reasonable alternative. While we may not be certain how much of an impact he would have on the court, it's hard to imagine anyone being more anti-business than Resnick. In fact, O'Donnell has stressed his intention to show "restraint" in his deliberations.

Cook's opponent, Judge Tim Black of Hamilton County Municipal Court, appears to be a solid trial judge who is tough on crime. But he has openly criticized Cook, saying she has "the overwhelming support of the insurance companies." In addition, The Columbus Dispatch reports that Black willingly describes himself as "progressive." The fact that Black is supported by the same groups backing Resnick -- big labor and trial lawyers -- speaks volumes.

When you head to the polls Nov. 7, don't just go prepared for the national campaigns. Be prepared to make a difference in how the Ohio Supreme Court affects your business. Fred Koury (fkoury@sbnnet.com) is president and CEO of SBN.