Wisconsin Budget Debate Starts, a ‘Defining Moment’

A “Insight Column” from James S. Haney as Wisconsin’s legislature prepares to debate Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget, Assembly Bill 75. He writes, persuasively, that the debate is indeed a, “Defining Moment in Wisconsin State Government.”

Leaders of Wisconsin State Government are rapidly approaching a generational defining moment when the full Legislature takes up the State Budget Bill, Assembly Bill 75. In addition to a myriad of tax Increases and earmarked pet projects sprinkled through key legislative districts, the budget continues to contain major policy changes, including a fundamental rewriting of Wisconsin’s negligence law.

If the Legislature votes to keep these negligence law changes in the budget, Wisconsin will have the most extreme liability laws in the United States. The damage this will wreak on Wisconsin’s economy is unfathomable, because there is no other liability system to compare to it. Businesses, their workers, and consumers through insurance costs, will pay a hefty price if these changes are approved.

At issue is “joint and several liability,” that is, the apportioning of culpability in liability lawsuits. Under current Wisconsin law passed in 1995, a plaintiff can collect all of the damages from a defendant only if the defendant is 51 percent or more responsible for the harm.

Gov. Doyle’s budget — and why is a tort issue even part of a budget bill? — guts this standard and instead encourages the hunt for “deep pocket” defendants to pay all the damages, even if their responsibility is just 1 percent. As Haney explains:

A budget priority for the Wisconsin Governor, during a time of the greatest economic turmoil in generations, was to return Wisconsin to a comparative negligence system where a defendant one percent at fault for an injury could be held jointly and severally liable for all of the other defendants’ liability in a claim. However, it gets worse, Wisconsin’s Chief Executive proposed changing the negligence rules further by creating a “combined fault” provision in the law under which a plaintiff could be at greater fault for his own injury than each defendant in a claim. But, so long as the combined liability of multiple defendants was greater than that of the plaintiff, the plaintiff could recover from each defendant to the degree of their fault, Thus, a plaintiff could be 40 percent at fault for their own injury, but could still recover individually from three defendants who were each 20 percent at fault.

Not to be harsh, but not only is this debate a “defining moment” for legislators and government, passage of the bill would be a defining idiocy for any state seeking to maintain a competitive business environment.

It’s difficult to see how this could be a priority for any politician who wasn’t beholden to campaign contributors in the plaintiff’s bar.

UPDATE (4:05 p.m.): The Assembly Democrats, meeting in closed caucus, have voted to remove the provision from the budget. The Senate Democrats will probably resist the effort, our sources tell us.

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