MADISON, Wisc. (CN) - Wisconsin's Legislature on Thursday passed a bill to cap punitive damages in civil lawsuits at $200,000 or twice the compensatory damages, whichever is greater. The bill also limits noneconomic damages to $750,000 for medical malpractice at nursing homes, and makes it much more difficult to win punitive damages.
According to the "Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau," which is contained in the 31-page Assembly Bill 1: "This bill changes the proof that the plaintiff must provide to recover punitive damages. Under the bill, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant either acted with intent to cause injury to a particular person or persons or that the defendant knew that the action of the defendant that resulted in injury to one or more persons was practically certain to result in injury to one or more persons."
The Analysis adds: "The bill requires the court to dismiss a claimant's action if the damage was caused by an inherent characteristic of the manufactured product that would be recognized by an ordinary person who uses or consumes the product. The bill relieves a distributor or seller of liability if the distributor or seller receives the product in a sealed container and has no opportunity to test or inspect the product, unless the distributor or seller is liable under another theory."
AB 1 also raises the standards for qualifying expert witnesses. According to the Analysis: "Under current law, if a witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness's testimony is limited to those opinions that are rationally based on the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of the witness's testimony or of a fact at issue in the case. This bill adds the additional limit that a nonexpert's testimony may not be based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge of the witness."
Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker claims the cap will stimulate business and create jobs. Walker, former chief executive of Milwaukee County, lauded the bill as part of his "Wisconsin Open for Business" platform.
Walker unveiled 23 "Open for Business" signs along Wisconsin's borders this week and announced, "These signs are aimed directly at job creators to make them aware that they are welcome here."
The vote on the tort reform bill divided along party lines.
Now that Republicans control both state houses, they quickly took advantage of their position.
Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that the 19-14 vote in the state Senate came "after several hours of debate on the floor." The Assembly then voted along party lines and passed the bill 57-36.
Fitzgerald said Republicans plan more changes to the way Wisconsin does business, adding, "We can't sue our way into prosperity."
Democratic state Senator Julie Lassa told Wisconsin Public Radio: "This is not a job creation bill. It is anything but. It just prevents those wrongdoers from having their day in court to be held accountable for their actions."
Many Wisconsin trial attorneys agree, telling WPR that AB1 "would help businesses at the expense of consumers and patients."
Attorney Dan Rottier, with Wisconsin law firm Habush, Habush & Rottier said during a televised interview: "This is a wish list from industry and business in Wisconsin," and, "There is no correlation between the job situation and product liability."
Trial attorneys rushed to file their wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits this week, expect Gov. Walker to sign the bill today (Friday).