LITTLE ROCK — The House on Monday approved a proposed ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to limit civil damages, lawyers’ fees and the judicial branch’s authority over court rules.
In a 66-30 vote, the House approved Senate Joint Resolution 8 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain Home. The resolution passed 21-10 in the Senate earlier this month and now goes back to the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment.
If referred to the November 2018 ballot and approved by voters, the proposed constitutional amendment would cap damages in civil suits for harm that cannot be measured in money, such as pain and suffering or death, at $500,000 and would cap punitive damages at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages.
It also would cap attorneys’ contingency fees at one-third of the net amount recovered by a client and give the Legislature authority to change and repeal court rules and create new court rules with a three-fifths vote.
A 2003 law that imposed limits on civil suits has been dismantled by a series of Arkansas Supreme Court rulings that held various provisions to be unconstitutional because they exceeded the authority of the legislative branch.
Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, a co-sponsor of the measure and a lawyer, told House members the measure would discourage frivolous lawsuits.
“Businesses are being extorted, because they come in and they’re faced with, ‘Do I go ahead and defend this even though I know it’s a frivolous lawsuit, or do I pay it because in the end a jury may very well slap on me a $10 million judgment and I can’t afford that?,” he said. “For some small businesses, a $1 million judgment, that’s enough to put us out of business.”
Several legislators spoke for and against the proposal. Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, said the measure would infringe on the fundamental constitutional right to a trial by jury.
Douglas said that with a damages cap in place, a business such as a nursing home may decide it can afford to act improperly and may say to a plaintiff, “Oh yeah, you can have your jury trial. Here’s $500,000. Y’all just go tell the jury whatever you want.”
The Legislature can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to the ballot every two years.