New Kid's View

Family lured Jerrianne and her husband to South Milwaukee in 2002 from Southern California where she worked as, first, a journalist, then, as a court information officer. She now stays busy with media-relations consulting, playing with her three grandchildren (part of the lure), writing, discovering her new environs, and hoping her garden will produce before the first fall frost.

What Wisconsin Elected, Part 1

Wisconsin Legislature, governor, small government, nanny government, lawsuits, damages, corporate responsibility, U.S. Constitution, individual rights

People who are called conservatives these days say they want smaller government and for government to keep its nose out of people's lives.

Yet, one of the first laws the newly elected "small government" Republican triumvirate of both houses of the Legislature and the governor enacted is a huge poke of the government's nose into Wisconsinites' lives. This law restricts individuals' rights to sue, and limits the amount of damages juries can award people who have been harmed. The law not only raises the bar on lawsuit eligibility, it caps punitive damages at $200,000 or double the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater, and keeps noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases involving nursing homes from exceeding $750,000. It further prohibits nursing home-abuse reports to be used as evidence in civil and in criminal cases!

First, in the corporate world that kind of money doesn't even rise to the level of chump change. To large, profitable companies, $200,000 has about the same value as a penny laying in the street that nobody even bothers to pick it up.

More importantly, though, what is government—a Republican-controlled government at that—doing meddling in people's (and I'm talking about actual human beings who walk, talk, breathe, eat and vote) business, people's own personal business of deciding whether or not they should be able to file a lawsuit? And what is Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled "small" government doing meddling in juries' decisions on what award they (juries) think best fits the harm and/or the negligence or intent of the culprit, or whether or not it's imperative to teach a lesson or send a message to an irresponsible company?

Doesn't such a law violate the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers in that it says the legislative and executive branches can usurp the judicial branch's responsibility? Whatever happened to judges deciding the merits of a case and juries determining what the economic punishment should be?

Proponents of this law say it will curb frivolous lawsuits. But judges have long had authority to dismiss a case on the grounds that it is frivolous.

This sounds like a nanny government to me, a government in which the governor and legislators are saying they know better than judges and juries, so have to take over the judicial branch and their job for them.

The idea behind this law, as I understand it, is to create a more business-friendly environment. But at what cost? Individuals’ rights? That seems like a pretty liberal (as in generous) policy toward businesses. And very parsimonious and callous policy toward individuals.

And what kind of rap on the knuckles is a $200,000 judgment against a company that puts profits above individuals' health, lives and safety? Shouldn't negligent and/or malevolent corporate decision makers get whacked in a way that really gets their attention?

That’s what a jury decided to do in 1999 when it levied a $4.9 billion judgment against General Motors because four children were severely burned in a car fire that was caused by a known faulty design? One of those children in the Malibu accident, by the way, lost part of one hand and bore grotesque scars over much of the rest of her body, including her face, that were almost unbearable to look at when she attended the trial, which took place several years and 70 surgeries after the accident.

Key to the jury's decision was that the gas tank in the 1979 Malibu in which the victims were riding was mounted behind the rear axle so close to the rear bumper that it was more vulnerable to exploding in a rear-end collision than if it had been positioned in front of the axle. Trial testimony and a smoking-gun internal memo indicated GM officials decided against a safer design that would have cost less than $20 per car more, because, they thought, it would be cheaper to settle any lawsuits that might arise from exploding gas tanks.

The jury said the judgment was intended to do two things: One was to make it so large, it would get GM's attention so that GM wouldn’t just chalk up it up to the cost of doing business. The second was to say that a company making such a cynical, calculated decision that knowingly put the cost of human life at less than $20 a car was not acceptable. The judge in that case reduced the jury's award to $1.2 billion and GM's appeal requested a further reduction, but the judgment sure did get the corporate world's attention.

A South Milwaukee neighbor said he thinks a $4.9 billion judgment is outrageous. Perhaps, unless it was his child or grandchild who was injured so grievously, had to endure years of unimaginable pain and suffer permanent grotesque disfigurement that was caused by a callously greedy corporation that not only knew about the risky design, but might have been able to prevent it with a $20 fix.  

Product-liability jury awards like that in the GM case are an extreme rarity, yet they are trotted out like fairytale boogie-men in order to get laws passed that leave corporations unaccountable, strip power from the third branch of government and rob individuals of their rights, not the least of which is the right to seek redress.

And corporate execs' response to such cases is to fight all the harder—not for consumer safety—but for so-called "tort reform." As Wisconsin's new law proves, the corporate world is winning. That, I believe, is what last November's election was really about.

So, just what did Wisconsin elect in November?

In this case, Wisconsin elected corporate profits over the health, safety and lives of its children—and adults. Because now, if a child or an adult in Wisconsin is permanently disfigured and/or disabled, that child, adult and their families' redress will be the corporate-world equivalent of that penny laying on the street that's not worth anyone's while to pick up.


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