CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Opponents of tort reform won a rare victory this session during Wednesday’s floor session in the state Senate when senators narrowly defeated a bill capping punitive damages in civil actions. The Senate rejected SB 421 18-16 as Republicans Chris Walters (R-Kanawha) and Daniel Hall (R-Wyoming) voted with the Democrats.
However, Hall’s “no” vote was likely a procedural move that will allow him to call for reconsideration of the bill at a later time.
The legislation capped the amount of money that could be awarded as punishment in civil suits at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. The legislation was part of a series of bills pushed by the new Republican majorities in both the Senate and House of Delegates this session to try to change the state’s legal climate.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) argued against the bill before the Senate took the vote. He criticized its supporters for believing local jury members couldn’t make the right decisions about punitive damages.
“Oh my goodness do not trust those people in those little white houses to do the right thing because it might hurt our businesses and our money and take these 30 pieces of silver out of our pocket——that’s wrong,” Kessler said. “I trust the people of this state.”
Kessler said punitive damage awards in civil cases happen rarely. He said he’s only dealt with one in 31 years of practicing law, but he said, the option needs to be there for juries when the wrongdoing is egregious.
“When there are things that occur so outrageous that we try to send a message to the wrongdoers that that behavior won’t be tolerated, that’s the role of punitive damages,” Kessler said. “We are capping and trading the rights of the people of this state! You want to talk about cap and trade—this is a cap and trade bill, we’re capping the exposure to wrongdoers and we’re trading their rights.”
The new Republican majority in the legislature has already passed tort reform bills including those dealing with medical malpractice, the open and obvious doctrine and joint and several liability. Some of those bills remain in conference committee.