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Leveling the playing field, but for whom?

Published (2/3/2012)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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House members listen as Rep. Doug Wardlow presents the omnibus torts bill during the Feb. 1 floor session. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Is our litigious society putting Minnesota businesses at a competitive disadvantage, or are civil suits the only way consumers get their claims addressed? That was the gist of a more than six-hour House debate on four “tort reform” bills, the first of the Republicans’ Reform 2.0 agenda.

The four bills passed the Senate in the last days of the 2011 session, but did not receive consideration on the House floor. All but one of the bills now awaits action by the governor.

Republican sponsors said the bills address lawsuit abuse and propose reform designed to improve the business and job climate in Minnesota.

However, DFLers countered that the bills rig “the system against Minnesota consumers and small businesses,” in favor of corporations and insurance companies.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) said these bills have nothing to do with getting people back to work, and are an attack on the middle class and small businesses that may be suing large corporations.

“The courts level the playing field between big corporations and those with little power,” said Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester).

Rep. Pat Mazorol (R-Bloomington) and Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) sponsor HF770/ SF530* that would change how interest rates are computed before and after judgments. It would lower the awards from the current 10 percent flat rate to a market-driven rate with a floor of 4 percent.

“This bill gives certainty to the judicial process,” said Mazorol.

After voting down 10 minority-sponsored amendments, the bill was passed 75-55. It returns to the Senate for concurrence.

In addition to increasing the threshold for filing a civil action in conciliation court from $7,500 to $10,000, HF211/ SF149*, sponsored by Rep. Doug Wardlow (R-Eagan) and Ortman, would address the right of appeal in class action suits. It would permit a court’s order related to certification of a class to be appealed before the case moves forward.

Wardlow said this would expedite the process, saving the state approximately $41,000 annually. Under the bill, while an appeal is pending, all proceedings must stop, including discovery, but the court may lift the stay, if good cause is shown. The House passed the bill 72-59.

Wardlow and Ortman also sponsor HF654/ SF373* that would shorten the state’s statute of limitations from six years to four years. Wardlow said Minnesota currently has the longest statute of limitations in the country and the bill would bring it in line with other states. It was passed 71-56.

Sponsored by Mazorol and Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson), HF747/ SF429* would implement two provisions to a statute regarding attorney fees’ awards in civil lawsuits. The first provides that when making the award a judge must take into consideration the reasonableness of the attorney fees sought in relation to the amount of damages awarded to the prevailing party; the second would provide a limit on attorney fees awarded in certain cases in which an offer of judgment is made but rejected by the prevailing party. It was passed 75-55.

Critics say the bill would make it impossible for some people to hire an attorney because some cases, especially in the area of discrimination, require a lot of attorney time.

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