Revised Tort Proposal Raises Damages Caps, Advances In Arkansas House

Feb 24, 2017

Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) presents SJR8 in the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Thursday.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

An Arkansas House Committee has advanced a revised version of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit awards in injury lawsuits and to change state court rulemaking authority. On Thursday, the Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs voted 14 to 3 to send the proposal to the full chamber.

An amendment added to the resolution, SJR8, would cap punitive and non-compensatory damage award amounts in injury lawsuits at $500,000 instead of $250,000, which was the limit under a previous version.

Presenting the resolution before the committee, the House sponsor, Republican Representative Bob Ballinger of Hindsville argued the caps would create a legal climate of certainty.

“Every time that a jury deliberates, they put a value on human life. All we’re doing is saying, hey this is a policy decision that I think I should set here to be able to create some sort of standard, some sort of uniformity,” said Ballinger.

Ballinger told reporters after the committee meeting that he introduced the amendment after talking with colleagues and hearing their concerns about the award limitations.

“We didn’t want this to squeak by out of this committee. We didn’t want it to squeak by out of the House. We wanted to have it to be something that legislators could all go home and say look, this is what we’ve done for the business climate of Arkansas and make it better. And do it in a way that we can feel fairly unified as a caucus,” he said.

The resolution, which could appear on the November 2018 general election ballot, has wide support in the Legislature. But it still has staunch opponents, including Republicans like Representative Douglas House of North Little Rock. He argued that juries should not be encumbered by arbitrary limits when doling out lawsuit judgments.

“Would you take $500,000 if I was sitting here cleaning my pistol and shot your privates off so you didn’t have a sex life, especially you younger folks? $500,000. Sorry, feel real bad about that. But that’s the limits,” House said just before the committee voted.

Arkansas Bar Association President Denise Hoggard and Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Dan Kemp spoke against the resolution. Hoggard, speaking on behalf of her 5,600-member organization representing lawyers across the state, criticized provisions that limit attorneys’ contingency fees, award caps and provisions transferring authority over court rulemaking from the state Supreme Court to the Legislature.

Chief Justice Kemp only commented on the provisions on court rulemaking, arguing the resolution would unbalance the separation of powers between judicial and legislative branches.

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook spoke in favor of the SJR8, arguing the state legal climate for businesses would improve if voters pass the measure.

The resolution, with the added amendment, now goes to the full House. The Senate passed an earlier version of the resolution last week.