LITTLE ROCK — All of the signatures submitted in support of a ballot measure on medical lawsuits could be disqualified because the measure’s backers did not provide written certification that their canvassers underwent background checks, a special master said Wednesday.
The remarks were contained in a report by retired judge J.W. Looney, who has been appointed a special master by the Arkansas Supreme Court in a lawsuit challenging Issue 4, a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit damages and lawyers’ contingency fees in medical lawsuits.
The suit by the Committee to Protect AR Families asks the state’s top court to strike the measure from the ballot because of alleged violations of state laws regarding the use of paid canvassers and inadequacies in the measure’s ballot title.
Looney said Wednesday in his report to the Supreme Court that the group sponsoring the measure, Health Care Access for Arkansans, failed to certify to the secretary of state’s office that the paid canvassers who collected signatures in support of the measure had undergone background checks, as required under state law.
Looney noted that a contractor hired by Health Care Access for Arkansans testified that he made “verbal certifications” that the canvassers had undergone background checks. But the failure to provide written certification “could be a material defect and disallow the counting of all signatures,” the special master said in his report.
The decision to allow or disallow the signatures will be up to the Supreme Court, which has not yet ruled on the suit.
Looney also said in his report that statements of eligibility were not provided for six canvassers, which could cause 47 signatures to be disqualified.
The special master found that background checks for 12 canvassers were obtained by a party other than the sponsoring group and its contractor. If the Supreme Court finds that the use of a third party for background checks is not permissible, then 10,764 signatures could be disqualified, he said.
Health Care Access for Arkansas has filed a counter-claim alleging that the secretary of state’s office disqualified some valid signatures.
Regarding the counter-claim, Looney said in his report that 667 signatures were incorrectly declared invalid because of what were thought to be incorrect addresses for canvassers; 29 signatures were incorrectly declared invalid because a canvasser was improperly excluded; and eight signatures were incorrectly declared invalid because they were erroneously added to a list of duplicate signatures.
Looney also said that if the Supreme Court rules that background checks cannot be obtained by a third party, then up to 668 signatures that are on a list of duplicates could be removed from that list and counted, although the secretary of state’s office could determine that some of them are invalid for other reasons.
If Issue 4 remains on the ballot and is approved by voters, it would amend the state constitution to direct the Legislature to set a cap of no less than $250,000 on non-economic damages against health-care providers. Non-economic damages are damages for things other than monetary losses, such as pain and suffering.
The measure also would limit a trial lawyer’s contingency fee to one-third of the amount recovered in a medical-injury case.