Lawmakers voted 104-9 for a tort reform package Wednesday. After a perfunctory final vote in the House, the bill goes to the Senate.
Several amendments failed that were sponsored by Marlboro County Democrat Doug Jennings, as he attempted to raise the cap on punitive damages. The bill states that punitive damages would be limited to $350,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages in a given case, whichever is greater. Compensatory damages compensate the victim for costs incurred and damage done. Punitive damages are designed to further reward the victim, and punish the one being sued.
Jennings said that the cap would only apply in rare cases and would not entice industry to the state, but he said in some cases it would create an injustice, as when a family loses a child in an accident to a drunk driver.
Jennings asserted that the cap will have an unexpected side effect. “What it will do, really, is impact the number of cases that end up going to court, opposed to those that settle,” he said. “If you pass something that is too restrictive, you’ll clog your court up with more cases going to jury trial.”
Sumter County Democrat David Weeks asked Jennings if the cap didn’t remind him of the recent cases surrounding Toyota.
(Weeks, Jennings on damages cap MP3 2:59)
Weeks,Jennings on damages cap
Charleston County Democrat Seth Whipper said the cases where some injured party is going after big damages are not frivolous cases, but people trying to pay medical bills and trying to survive.
Former Clemson University economist B.R. Skelton also served as a legal consultant to assess a person’s individual value in tort cases, in the case of injury or death. He took exception to Jennings assertion that the U.S. Supreme Court believed that a lawsuit cap that is three times what compensatory damages are is too low, that it should be six or nine times.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell says the measure will lower the cost of doing business and make the state more competitive by reducing frivolous lawsuits and limiting punitive damages to a realistic level. Harrell says neighboring states have already enacted similar tort reform, putting South Carolina at a disadvantage.