A South Carolina state Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would increase a cap on how much state or local governments can pay out in lawsuits. But Senate leaders say the bill’s language will likely kill it on the Senate floor.
The total cap of $600,000 per incident was put into place in 1986 and has not been raised since. It has drawn scrutiny after a Spartanburg kiddie train crash last year killed a six-year-old boy and injured two dozen other children and parents. State Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) said the $600,000 per occurrence is nowhere near enough to cover the medical bills of the victims.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation by Peeler that seeks to adjust the cap each year to keep up with inflation. Peeler (who is not on the committee) had originally sought to eliminate the cap entirely, but other senators were concerned that would lead to a huge increase in insurance premiums for municipal governments. So they instead voted last month to index the cap with the Consumer Price Index– the most common measurement of inflation.
But many conservatives on the committee, such as Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens), shifted course Tuesday, saying they could not support the CPI link– arguing it would require inevitable spending increases each year for local governments.
“I’m not going to doom my county and my cities,” Martin told the committee. “That’s why I’m voting against it.”
However, Democrats and some Republicans allied to keep it in place. Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-Winnsboro) argued $600,000 today is worth much less than in 1986 once inflation is taken into account. “We can put in an index that will go into effect every year so we don’t have to worry about it and introduce brand-new legislation every year,” he said.
But others worried about the long-term effect of automatic increases year after year. “There is no force created by man more powerful than compound interest,” said Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Goose Creek), paraphrasing a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein.
After a long debate, the committee voted to keep the index in the bill by an 11-11 vote (a majority was needed to remove it). The committee then advanced the overall bill by an 11-6 vote.
But Martin warned the state’s powerful business and municipal lobbies had aligned against the automatic increases. He said opponents would almost certainly block the bill from reaching a floor vote in the Senate. “There is absolutely no chance that we’re going to be able to pass that.”
Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) argued it was ridiculous to oppose the cap simply because it would require more taxpayer money.
“Who do you think is going to be for these (medical) bills anyway?” he asked, “These folks are going to end up on Medicaid or indigent care inside the hospital. Taxpayers are paying for those bills anyway.”
Martin said he was especially concerned because of a non-controversial section of the bill that would allow for local governments to set up assistance funds to pay medical expenses for accidents on public property– such as the Spartanburg train accident. He called it unfortunate that legislation meant to help victims would fall victim itself to Senate political procedures.