Just when you thought it was over

Just when you thought it was over

Ohio’s year-old tort reform law is in the midst of its second court challenge-and this one is going straight to the Supreme Court.

By Nancy Byron

It was considered a coup for Ohio’s business community in 1996 when legislation aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits and enormously high jury awards survived staunch opposition at the statehouse.

Less than a month after the so-called tort reform law took effect in January 1997, however, the National Lawyers Guild of Cleveland challenged it. The case was dismissed by the Franklin County Common Pleas Court, but the signal sent by the challenge was clear: This battle is not over.

In November 1997, the same month the Cleveland lawyers’ challenge was thrown out of court, a statewide group stepped up to the plate. The consortium led by the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers and the Ohio AFL-CIO swung hard and aimed for the wall-filing legal action directly with the Supreme Court of Ohio. The group contends that the tort reform law violates the Ohio Constitution by:

  • Infringing on the authority of the Supreme Court to establish rules of civil judicial procedure.
  • Restricting the right to trial by jury by limiting damage awards.
  • Prohibiting due process of law.
  • Creating special privileges that violate equal-protection clauses.
  • Including multiple subjects in one bill.

Supporters of tort reform not only disagree with these contentions, but claim that the trial lawyers and labor groups are circumventing the legal system by filing the case with Ohio’s top court right off the bat. Legal challenges typically go through a trial court and appeals court before advancing to the Supreme Court.

Apparently, this irregularity didn’t bother the high court, which agreed to hear the challenge. Harry Franken, communications director for the Ohio Supreme Court, says the case is not scheduled to be heard before the court recesses for the summer later this month.

“But they’ve surprised me before,” he adds. The court will reconvene in September.

Should the challenge be successful, it wouldn’t be the first time the Supreme Court has stricken down a tort reform law. A 1975 statute limiting the length of time in which legal claims could be filed and the amount of damages that could be requested was previously overturned by the court.

Scores of business and trade organizations throughout the state are pushing for the case’s dismissal.

“This is a blatant attempt by personal-injury lawyers to ignore the will of our elected state representatives and perpetuate a growing litigious society,” says Linda S. Woggon, president of the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice, which is leading the charge to dismiss the case, along with Attorney General Betty Montgomery.

Richard Mason, executive director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, declined comment, indicating he’d prefer to make his case directly to the seven justices on the bench.

The stakes in this case are high for Ohio businesses. A reversal would once again allow joint and several liability lawsuits, remove the cap on punitive damage awards and remove comparative fault principles from product-liability cases, among other issues.

Should the law be upheld, however, the trial lawyers and labor groups would have little chance of recourse-short of lobbying for another law change by state legislators-since the Supreme Court is the court of final judicial review in the state.

How to get involved

Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice

Position: Supports current tort reforms

Contact: Linda Woggon with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce

Phone: (800) 622-1893

E-mail: [email protected]

Web page: www.alliancecourtwatch.com

Ohio Citizens Against Loss and Abuse

Position: Supports current tort reforms

Contact: Dana Smith, executive director

Phone: (800) 668-5266


Position: Opposes current tort reforms

Contact: William Burga, president

Phone: (614) 224-8271