Portion of Arkansas tort reform law ruled unconstitutional

By Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau | May 7, 2009

Arkansas Supreme Court

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.- Declaring a portion of the 2003 tort reform law violates the Arkansas Constitution separation of powers clause, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled two provisions of the Civil Justice Reform Act unconstitutional on April 30.

Asking the higher court whether the provisions violate the state constitution, U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes submitted questions over the provisions regarding the negligence or fault of nonparties when considering liability and the provision regarding evidence of damages for the costs of necessary medical care, treatment, or services.

The provisions were in connection with a federal lawsuit filed by Darrell Johnson against Rockwell Automation on April 11, 2006, in the Batesville Division of the Eastern District of Arkansas. The lawsuit alleged that in February 2004, Johnson was injured when a defective safety switch on a "starter bucket" turned on while Johnson's hand was inside.

Johnson states that when he was doing repairs on the starter bucket, he turned the machine off and the interlock safety fell into place.

While using a tool to pull the fuses for the necessary repairs, his hand inadvertently cause the interlock and power switch to rotate into the power position. According to the original complaint, the fuse Johnson removed, arched with the nearby contact and caused an electrical explosion.

Johnson is seeking damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, past and future loss of income, working time, and earning capacity, disfigurement, permanent disabilities and emotional limitations.

The lawsuit alleged that the defendants were liable for Johnson's injuries, liable for the negligent design, manufacture, and supply of the starter bucket, and liable for negligent failing to warn of the inherent risks in the design of the product.

Defendant Rockwell denied the switch design was defective but argued that Johnson's employer Eastman Chemical Company modified the starter without Rockwell's knowledge. Rockwell argued that under the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003, it could name Eastman Chemical as a "nonparty at fault" and that any damages it should be should be limited to its percentage share of actual liability.

Some of Johnson's medical costs were paid by his employee medical plan but he claims his costs exceeded the amount paid. In response to Johnson's efforts to present evidence of the costs, defendant Rockwell argued that the tort reform law only allowed evidence limited to the amount already paid or that remained of medical costs.

Johnson argued that the act's provisions cited by the defendant violated the Arkansas constitution and the Arkansas Supreme Court agrees.

In the recently released opinion, Associate Justice Paul Danielson agrees with Johnson's argument "that the nonparty-fault provision invades the powers granted to the judiciary by the Arkansas Constitution" and that the "provision effectively established a procedure that conflicts with our rules of pleadings, practice and procedure."

Further, Justice Danielson wrote "that it is clear to this court that the legislature has, without regard to this court's "rules of pleading, practice and procedure," established its own procedure by which the fault of a nonparty shall be litigated."

The higher court also stated that the provision regarding limitations on evidence is violation of separation of powers.

Stating that the rules regarding the admissibility of evidence are within the court's province, the opinion declared the provision unconstitutional as it "clearly limits the evidence that may be introduced relating to the value of medical expenses to the amount of medical expenses paid or the amount to be paid by the plaintiff or on a plaintiff's behalf, thereby dictating what evidence is admissible."

The 2003 Civil Justice Reform Act was a legislative response to a jury awarded $78 million judgment against a Mena, Ark. nursing home in a resident's death. The Arkansas Supreme Court reduced the award to $26 million.

The Arkansas Supreme Court did not address the $1 million cap the law places on punitive damages in civil lawsuits.

The case is scheduled to go to trial at the end of June. The plaintiff is represented by Little Rock attorney James Bruce McMath.

U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes is presiding over the litigation.

Case No 1:2006cv00017

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