Monday, February 16, 2009

Ohio Tort Reform Legislation Protects Drunk Drivers

How could Ohio legislators pass laws favoring drunk drivers in court over their victims? They have, and here's how. Let's say you're hit head on by a drunk driver. You shatter your leg, need surgery, rack up thousands in medical bills and lost wages, and go through almost a year of painful physical rehab.

If you file a lawsuit against the drunk driver, you are entitled to possibly two different types of compensation. One is "compensatory damages," which a jury assesses for your past and future medical bills, lost wages, physical pain, and any permanent injuries you will have.

The second form of compensation you might be entitled to is "punitive damages." These damages are separate from an injured person's compensatory damages, and are designed to punish wrongdoers for reckless or outrageous conduct like driving drunk.

Example: You go to trial against the drunk driver/his insurance company, and the jury hears evidence that the driver was two times over the legal limit, and attempted to leave the scene. In that same trial, the jury also hears about how you needed emergency surgery, missed 5 months of work, missed your childrens' ballgames, and had to hire out all the house or yard work you do yourself. If the jury returns a verdict of $100,000 for your compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, this was all well and proper....until 2005.

Enter "Senate Bill 80"--Ohio's "tort reform" legislation. According to our Legislature, we had a "crisis" and we needed to cut down on "frivolous lawsuits," or so we were told by the insurance industry, manufacturing groups, the Chamber of Commerce, big tobacco, and all the other conglomerates who spent millions in Ohio lobbying for the bill. This bill was a wish list for corporate America, and they got it. One of those gems was a provision that prohibits a jury from hearing ANY evidence that the driver was drunk until after it decides the amount of compensatory damages (known as "bifurcation," which means to separate out in "legal speak").

Who pushed for this law? Insurance companies. They don't want juries to hear evidence of their insured's outrageous conduct (i.e. the truth) for fear that the jury will return a higher verdict for the injured person. As a result of this law, juries are not told the truth, and we have to engage in a sterilized, fictional version of a trial. For all the jury knows, the drunk driver was coming home from church (instead of the bar where he had 6 shots and 8 beers). And if a judge "bifurcates" a trial, there are now two phases to it--a "compensatory" and a "punitive" phase, meaning a longer and more expensive trial.

Thankfully some judges will refuse to bifurcate a trial despite this new law, and will allow the jury to hear ALL the evidence, including the driver's intoxication, before they return their verdict.

But it amazes me that the Legislature would agree to pass such a law. Why are we protecting drunk drivers who hurt people with the equivalent of a 2500 pound bullet on our highways? What kind of message does excluding evidence of their intoxication at trial send? Where's the "personal responsibility" in that law?

At the end of the day, we have offensive laws like this because insurance companies asked for them to protect their bottom line--plain and simple. I'd love for a Legislator to explain this law with a straight face to a drunk driving victim, or advocate groups like MADD or SADD. Remember the adage you probably heard from your parents or grandparents: "You break it, you buy it?" For Ohio drunk drivers, it now translates to "You break it, we'll bifurcate it."

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