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Sen. Dale Schultz: Liability law changes would hurt consumers
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Major changes that tip the scales of justice are among public policy items that don't belong in the rapidly developing budget bill in Madison.

Three changes in an area of law known as joint and several liability would lead to many more personal injury lawsuits and a much greater chance a lawsuit may name you, the business where you work, or the business you own as a defendant.

Current Wisconsin law is like most states, a co-defendant can be responsible for 100 percent of damages only if he or she is 51 percent or more at fault. The first proposed law change shifts the responsibility for compensating a victim to any party that has assets and is determined in court to be as little as 1 percent at fault in an injury. That means lawyers will name many more parties in a lawsuit, including any individual, manufacturer or other type of business that can possibly be connected to an injury.

If the proposal passes, paying more for more liability coverage would be the only way to protect assets. For businesses, the added expense would amount to a tax on doing business, a tax that would be passed along to all consumers and lead many employers to cut jobs and reconsider creating jobs in the state.

Here's an example of how the changes could affect you.

Your car is parked in front of your house for the night. An uninsured driver crashes into your car and his passenger is severely injured. A judge would hold you at least 1 percent at fault simply because your car was there. Your insurance company will pay up to your coverage limits and after that you could lose personal assets you've worked and saved for to fully compensate the injured passenger.

A second proposed law change sounds even crazier. Suppose you're in an accident and the "other guy" is judged to be 40 percent at fault. If you and three other defendants are each judged 15 percent at fault, you could be sued collectively by the one party 40 percent at fault. The real world effect of this change would be many more lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, naming many more defendants, possibly including you. This plan is not justice and it's not the way Wisconsin law has ever worked before.

A third liability change would require a judge to tell the jurors in a personal injury lawsuit how their verdict would affect the parties being sued. Inevitably, such a policy would tempt jurors to side against a defendant with assets or insurance in order to assure compensation to a victim, even if doing so meant ignoring the facts of a case or the law.

For example, if you were judged 10 percent at fault in an accident, would it be fair that you should have to pay 100 percent of a jury award to a victim just because you happen to be the only defendant involved in the case that has paid off their home, has retirement savings, owns a small business, farm or rental property? Or, in the more likely scenario, is it fair for your insurance company to settle a lawsuit out of court and pay all the damages just because you were the one party with liability coverage?

Combined, these changes could mean the end of local events such as a dairy breakfast, art fair, music festival or rodeo. Just ask any organizers of such events about the already high cost of liability insurance. The changes proposed to our state's liability laws will make adequate liability coverage less affordable, perhaps cancelling the event. The added liability costs could hurt, even close, recreational or visitor attractions such as a local museum or mine, ski hill or water park by driving up prices. The cost of many goods and services will rise because of this inflationary and anti-consumer proposal.

These proposals, which trial lawyers sought, would mean less legal justice in Wisconsin and mire our economy in more lawsuits, higher consumer costs and less ability to attract all kinds of employers to our state.

If you agree these changes would tilt the scales of justice in favor of those doing the suing instead of maintaining the existing balance between those suing and those being sued, you can help get them removed from the budget.

Please e-mail me at with your name, address and brief message, I will forward your message to the 16 members of the legislature's Joint Committee on Finance that is deciding which budget provisions will stay or go. To learn more about the state budget plan, including the dozens of policy items it still contains, go to

- Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, has chaired the committee for insurance issues, been active in the National Conference of Insurance Legislators, and taken a lead role on many insurance issues in the Legislature.