Liability Reform Coalition Testifies in Support of ESSB 5728 in Washington

Supporters of comprehensive liability reforms testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday supporting ESSB 5728, a bill the Senate passed earlier this session.

Packing the hearing room were physicians, local business owners, local government officials, health care providers, and representatives from various associations throughout the state all urging legislators to pass this bill out of committee.

“This is the only bill right now addressing skyrocketing insurance premiums in a reasonable, comprehensive way,” said Cliff Webster, chairman of the Liability Reform Coalition. “As you heard today, it is not only physicians and other health care providers in crisis but architects, builders, small business owners and local governments.”

The Liability Reform Coalition, made up of more than 70 public and private organizations, called for Representatives on the committee to pass the bill out of committee in order to bring the bill before the House membership for a full debate and vote.

In a letter to Rep. Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House, the Washington State Medical Association (WSMA) supported efforts to bring ESSB 5728 to the floor for a vote. “ESSB 5728 is not a perfect bill, but it represents substantive policy changes to this state’s deeply flawed tort system. It represents the sort of changes that will lead to moderated premiums and increased access to needed health care services for our fellow citizens.”

In addition to physicians, committee members heard from business owners and local government officials who stressed the importance of this legislation. Local business owners throughout the state are seeing double digit increases in liability insurance premiums, forcing them to make cuts in operating costs, often times, it means cutting jobs or abandoning plans for expansion.

“Reducing these costs for small businesses will help ensure these employers have the money to keep the economy going — jobs,” said Carolyn Logue, Washington State director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Doing just one part will only keep the problem going in other areas.”

Current and former mayors testified that cities are frequently named in suits because they are seen as the “deep pocket” and can end up paying the full amount of a jury award even when their fault is minimal. Under the current system of joint and several liability, one party may be forced to pay the entire amount of a judgment, even if they are only found to be 10 percent or less at fault, if none of the other named parties is able to pay.

“Cities continue to be held liable for circumstances beyond our control,” said Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshal speaking on behalf of the Association of Washington Cities. “We are seeking a balance.”

“This is the most important issue before you this year,” testified Wes Uhlman, former Seattle Mayor. “The present system is fundamentally flawed.”

Physicians testifying pointed out the importance of limiting non-economic damages as the most powerful way to decrease ever higher insurance premiums. Other states have enacted such reforms, including the necessary statewide vote to amend the constitution, with success in lower premiums compared to those states with no such limits.

Thursday’s hearing on ESSB 5728 marks the first step in moving the bill forward for a full vote.