More than 50 businesses and organizations have joined together to oppose Gov. Jim Doyle’s bid to change Wisconsin’s liability laws.
The Democratic governor’s proposal known as “joint and several liability” would increase the number of victims who could receive full damages in civil lawsuits filed over injuries.
Under Doyle’s proposal, the defendant would only have to be found to be equally or more at fault than the person bringing the lawsuit. Opponents say that means a business owner could be as little as 1 percent at fault and have to pay 100 percent of the damages. Trial attorneys who support the change said that rarely happens.
Members of the coalition, which included ski resorts and tourism groups, the state Farmers Union and Farm Bureau, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Tavern League and the state Hospital Association, said the change will lead to more lawsuits, raise insurance rates and drive some out of business.
“I’m frightened to think of what this could do to the business climate in Wisconsin,” said Tom Thorstad, general manager of Thorstad Chevrolet in Madison. Thorstad said his dealership has already cut overtime and worker hours but it’s inevitable the proposed law change would cost his business even more.
Trial lawyers accused the businesses of using scare tactics. The Wisconsin Association for Justice, the trial lawyer group, said fears about upheaval to the state’s business climate were unfounded because the change would largely return Wisconsin law to what it was before 1995.
That year the Legislature changed liability laws so a defendant can’t be held liable for all damages in an accidental injury or death case unless the jury finds the defendant at least 51 percent at fault.
It is uncommon for the law to be invoked but it’s important for victims to have available, the trial lawyers said.
“Wisconsin citizens deserve to know that wrongdoers will be held accountable for their actions and not be stuck with the bill for someone else’s negligence,” the trial attorney group said.
Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said he wasn’t prepared to fully defend the item, which the governor proposed back in February, because all energy was being focused on solving a $6.6 billion budget shortfall.
“It is something that’s in the governor’s budget,” Sensenbrenner said of the liability issue.
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