by Rep. Steve Stepanek, Republican Whip
The Trial Lawyers are in heaven now that the New Hampshire House passed a bill that will allow them to sue and collect damages from the defendant with the deepest pockets, regardless of how liable the defendant is. House Bill 143 would change the way damages are apportioned in personal injury action involving multiple parties.
The easiest way to explain this is to provide an example. The New Hampshire Municipal Association states this: a car runs a stop sign and collides with a town plow truck. A passenger in the car is injured. The passenger sues both the driver of the car (his friend) and the town. Before trial, he settles the claim against his friend for $25,000. The trial proceeds, with the town now as the sole defendant. The jury finds that the plaintiff’s friend was 99 percent at fault and assesses total damages of $170,000. Under existing law, the town would pay only its proportionate share of the damages: one percent of $170,000 or $1,700. Unfortunately, HB 143 would force the town to pay 100 percent of the damages awarded even though the town was found to be only one percent responsible. To be fair, this scenario would have the town actual pay $170,000 less the $25,000 paid by “the friend” for a total payment of $145,000. This is still far greater than the $1,700 for which the town would be responsible under current law.
Supporters of the trial lawyers and HB 143 argue that this allows plaintiffs to collect the full damages regardless of each defendant’s ability to pay. They claim that the plaintiffs should have the right to go after whomever they wish, even if that means the defendant with the deepest pockets but the least amount of responsibility. I believe that all plaintiffs have the right to sue for damages, but the question is who should shoulder the most blame? If the defendant most at fault does not have the resources to pay his or her portion of the damages, should the other defendants who have been found proportionally less at fault be forced to pick up the balance of the settlement just because they have more insurance coverage or “deeper pockets”?
The answer is no. If fairness is to prevail in our justice system, defendants must be held accountable for only their proportion of responsibility. The NH Supreme Court agrees and recently ruled that damage awards in civil actions must be proportional to the level of responsibility for the action. HB 143 would overturn this ruling, which is why the NH Municipal Association, the NH Business & Industry Association, NH Police Chiefs Association, New Hampshire’s Hospital and Medical Associations, numerous chambers of commerce (Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth among others), and many other organizations all oppose this legislation.
The bottom line is that businesses, our towns, cities, and our insurance companies will foot the bill of those who cannot afford to pay their proportion of the decision. This legislation, if passed by the senate and signed by Governor Lynch, would mean increased taxes when our communities pay beyond their fair liability; means increased insurance premiums for us from our companies forced to shoulder more risk in excess of their own; and would put our strong economy and friendly business environment in jeopardy.
Please encourage your senator and Governor Lynch to stand with the Supreme Court, our communities and our businesses and do the right thing by killing this unfair piece of legislation.