South Carolina Panel Delays Vote on Lawsuit Reform Bill

By MEG KINNARD | March 16, 2012

A South Carolina legislative panel opted on Wednesday to postpone voting on a bill that would exclude medical expenses from the $600,000 liability cap that protects the government from paying unlimited damages, regardless of the number of government entities involved.

The bill discussed by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee does limit damages related to pain and suffering to $50,000 per person, or $600,000 per occurrence. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said the panel wasn’t prepared to vote and would pick up debate at a later date.

The discussion about changing the lawsuit limits began last year after a children’s train ride careened off its tracks at a downtown Spartanburg park and into a ditch on March 19. Benji Easler, a 6-year-old boy, was killed. Twenty-eight others were injured.

Legislators expressed sympathy for the Easler family but voiced caution in making changes to the law, changes Martin said would cause the state’s insurance premiums to more than double, soaring to $95 million.

As an alternative, Martin proposed that local governments be allowed to have supplemental coverage for activities, like operating a train or other amusement ride, that could be considered outside of the agency’s traditional duties. Otherwise, Martin said, small events like local festivals that include rides might be considered too much of a liability.

“I would hate to see those go by the wayside because of liability concerns,” Martin said.

Sen. Luke Rankin urged the panel to find a way to expand the pool to help the injured families.

“People have suffered,” the Conway Republican said. “The counties and the cities and the state look mighty insensitive.”

Families affected by the derailment have said they face mounting medical bills and, as a group, are unfairly limited by the state caps that impose the $600,000 total limit regardless of how many people seek to recover money. Several of those families have filed lawsuits that accuse county officials of not adequately supervising the train operator or inspecting the park’s tracks. They also say state officials were negligent and didn’t properly inspect the train, which crashed on its first day of operation.

Spartanburg attorney Tom Killoren, who represents one of those families, said he fears the Legislature won’t approve the bill.

“What if you have a city bus with 27 people in it that causes a collision, and people are killed and maimed? You’re still stuck with the same circumstance,” said Killoren, whose clients include a family of four that racked up thousands in medical bills after the crash.

The state inspector who admitted to falsifying his examination of the ride – saying he approved the train to operate even though he never did a test run – was swiftly fired after the crash. The Associated Press reported that the same inspector had issued only one violation in more than three years of examining rides.

County officials blamed the wreck on excessive speed, saying the train was going 22 mph – nearly three times faster than recommended – when, on its third circuit, it rolled off its tracks and into a ditch. Prosecutors levied no criminal charges against the ride operator, who said he was distraught but wasn’t to blame.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed “Benji’s Law,” which sets new standards for miniature train rides, requiring a speedometer and device that prevents the train from going too fast.

State labor officials now changed the ride inspection process, saying they would use outside contractors instead of state employees to review the state’s rides and elevators.

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