N.H. Gov. Lynch Undecided Over Civil Damages Bill Opposed by Insurers

June 28, 2007

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch is in the middle of a battle over a bill to change the way juries can assign blame in lawsuits.

Lynch has talked with business groups who are against the change and with trial lawyers who favor it. He said this week he wants to sit down with both sides at the same time before deciding whether to sign the bill that would make the change.

“I am going to bring both of them together and see if they will talk to each other or past each other, if that is the case. I want to see if there is a consensus,” Lynch told members of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.

The bill would undo a pair of state Supreme Court rulings that changed the way damages are assigned in civil cases. The lawyers who favor the bill say it simply would reinstate the system that was in place for 20 years, but the businesses, towns, doctors and builders who oppose the change say it will leave make them liable for all the damages in a case even if they are only partly at fault. They accuse lawyers of trying to tip the balance of justice to maximize their fees.

“It is not true that they are putting the law back to way it was. It is changing the law to what some lawyers wanted it to be,” said Cordell Johnston, government affairs attorney for the New Hampshire Municipal Association. “Ask anyone who is not a trial lawyer, they’ll say the current standard ought to apply.”

In 2003 and 2006, the court ruled that juries must apportion damage awards based on each defendant’s level of fault and must consider the responsibility of any party involved in the action even that party already had settled its way out of the case.

Trial lawyers insist the rulings have allowed businesses who are sued to reduce their own liability by shifting responsibility to parties not involved in a lawsuit.

“Civil liability was completely changed and caused jurors to consider fault of people who were not before the court,” said Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua, a bill co-sponsor and trial lawyer. They contend this would return the liability standard that existed for 40 years prior to 1986.

On the other side is a group calling itself Keep the Balance, a network of business, municipal, banking, health-care and insurance groups that contend this law could make defendants vulnerable to costly jury awards after more responsible parties have settled their claims. They argue that plaintiffs will target anyone with deep pockets and will try to convince juries that those with the highest levels of insurance coverage were most to blame.

“From our perspective, it will put many of our businesses at risk if they are sued in a multi-party case,” Chamber President Chris Williams told Lynch.

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