At the end of last year, Senate Bill 120, dealing with joint and several liability, passed the Ohio House of Representatives by a 79-17 vote. According to Rodger Geiger, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), one of the organizations pushing the reform, the legislation brings Ohio in line with 34 other states that have modified or eliminated the rule of joint and several liability.
The ruling has a potentially significant effect on what three out of five Ohio businesses that are sued in an average year.
"Before, if a defendant was found to be just 10 percent at fault, a jury could require them to pay 100 percent of the damages," says Geiger. "Under (Senate Bill 120), those defendants that are found to be less than 50 percent liable will pay only a proportionate share of the damages."
Many business owners have found themselves in court defending against a claim for a product or machine that wasn't maintained, assembled or used properly by another party, only because, as Geiger says, "Their label was there and they have insurance and can pay.
"You (could) be as little as 1 percent liable, but if you are perceived to be the deep pockets, you end up paying 100 percent of the jury verdict," says Geiger. "This creates a second victim."
Senate Bill 120 is one of the fragments of House Bill 350, Ohio's hallmark tort reform bill that was originally passed almost 10 years ago.
"It had 45 issues, and the courts struck it down," says Geiger. "The court claimed it violated the single subject rule, and now, in response, we are coming at it one piece at a time."
In addition to the joint and several liability legislation, the General Assembly passed reform bills on noneconomical and punitive caps, and on peer review discovery in medical malpractice suits. All of these, says Geiger, will help Ohio businesses stay in business.
He thinks the new rulings protect business while still allowing victims to be compensated.
"Let's create some parameters and get rid of the lottery system," says Geiger. "The civil justice system does play a role in punishing bad companies but should it be there to make people millionaires." How to reach:National Federation of Independent Businesses Ohio, (614) 221-4107 or www.nfib.com/oh