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Behind the Bill: Liability Reform

Posted April 1, 2011
Updated April 2, 2011

A proposal to relax the state’s liability laws is working its way through the state House. House Bill 542 would ease negligence laws for doctors, cap damages for malpractice, and restrict attorneys’ earnings in some cases.  Behind the Bill: ALEC and Tort Reform Behind the Bill: ALEC and Tort Reform

Trial lawyers don’t like the bill in general. But they’re especially concerned about the product liability section. It would bar North Carolinians from suing for injuries caused by almost any product regulated by government.

Liability lawyer Janet Ward Black told the Tort Reform committee Wednesday the change would cover everything from drugs to toys to cars.

“Almost every single product whether it’s manufactured in North Carolina, another state, or another country, is affected by this bill, Black testified. “What it does, basically, is provide immunity - amnesty - for manufacturers of products, as long as some agency was regulating them.”

Black says the proposal came from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Commission.

ALEC who?

ALEC is a policy group in Washington DC – technically non-partisan, but conservative.

Senior policy director Michael Bowman called it a “unique public-private think tank” where businesses work with lawmakers and experts on model legislation. Those bills – dozens of them, on topics from gun rights to organized labor to voter ID – are introduced in legislatures all over the country.

State lawmakers can join for $50 a year. But big corporations pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for memberships. In return, they get access to lawmakers, and influence over how model legislation is written.

ALEC’s private enterprise board includes pharmaceutical makers like GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer, and Pfizer, as well as Koch Industries, Altria, Wal-Mart, and ExxonMobil.

NC House Senior Budget Chairman Harold Brubaker (R-Randolph) is on ALEC’s national board of directors. Brubaker did not respond to requests for comment.

ALEC on Jones St.

ALEC came to Raleigh on March 22nd to hold a “tort reform boot camp.” Speaker Thom Tillis’s spokesman Jordan Shaw said his office didn’t organize the event. Bowman confirms it was paid for by ALEC.

The two-hour meeting was held in the legislative auditorium, but wasn’t publicized or put on the legislative calendar. Shaw said about 20 House and Senate members attended.

The only person allowed to speak at the next day’s Tort Reform committee meeting was ALEC board member John Del Giorno from GlaxoSmithKline.

The draft bill that came out that day had ALEC’s model language in it.

Chris Nichols with NC Advocates for Justice, the trial lawyer’s group, says parts of H542 are “lifted verbatim” from ALEC. “It’s either the world’s biggest coincidence that ALEC language is in this bill, or there was contact outside of the eyes of the citizens of North Carolina.”

He says H542 is “extreme.” adding that if the bill passes, North Carolina would be the only state in the country to ban its people from suing over tainted food or dangerous drugs.

“No other state has even considered this,” Nichols said. “ALEC comes into every state and tries to sell this dangerous legislation. No state has bought it – up until now.”

ALEC’s Michael Bowman says his group paid for the tort reform boot camp. He called the bill “common sense.” “Trial lawyers believe in a litigious society,” he said. “We believe in a judicial system that’s sensible.”

“We do believe that when people have been wronged, they’re entitled to compensation,” Bowman added. “But it should be reasonable and justifiable.”

Rhyne: “A resource”

House Tort Reform chairman and bill sponsor Rep. Johnathan Rhyne confirmed that ALEC had helped write House Bill 542.

“Our intention is to have a balanced bill, and I’m sure coming through the committee, we will,” Rhyne said. “But we’ll take input from all sources, and they’ve done considerable study on the topic of tort reform, and we’ll certainly use them as a resource along with lots of other people.”

Public input is already over, at least for now. March 31st was the only meeting at which Rhyne’s committee was scheduled to take public comments. The bill had been available to the public for 18 hours.  Twelve speakers were allowed, six for it and six against.

“The public is being kept out of this debate,” Nichols said. “We have never had a legislature that has pushed through bills so quickly with so little public input. Eight minutes of presentation on the deadliest liability bill in America is all that we had.”

The House Select tort reform committee will debate amendments to the bill April 7th. It’s likely to pass the committee later this month.

6 Comments

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  • dannyg Apr 6, 5:13 p.m.

    As a Republican, I caution all our Representatives in Raleigh, to open their eyes and get about the business of protecting the people instead of big business. Yes, some reform is needed, but not this piece of junk. If someone makes something, and some government agency says it is OK, then I am prevented from legal recourse if the product does me harm?! That is crazy. Pass this and my vote will turn in a heartbeat!

  • explorerford Apr 4, 11:41 a.m.

    This group in Raleigh is not Republican. I am a Republican and I believe in smaller government. These guys are telling me that the Government can now reach into the jury box and tell them what cases are worth and who has liability and not. THAT IS BIG GOVERNMENT CONTROLLING OUR lives.

    As a Republican I believe in the US and NC Constitution. The NC Constituion says:
    Sec. 18. Court shall be open.

    All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person, or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law; and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.


    Sec. 25. Right of jury trial in civil cases.

    In all controversies at law respecting property, the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of the people, and shall remain sacred and inviolable.

    Like it or not, that is in The NC Constitution, look it up. Stay away from my right Republican party of NC, you are an abomination of the

  • LambeauSouth Apr 4, 11:17 a.m.

    Instead of government working for big business, maybe government could start working for the people.

    But, that's not the Greed Over People
    GOP

    Way

  • jpt Apr 4, 9:15 a.m.

    WRAL did a great job of picking up on this one! Talk about trading one special interest for another! NC was already listed as one of the top 5 buisness states but now our citizens are in serious risk! It is also obvious that by reducing the debate the current majority hopes no one has noticed they are just doing the bidding of their D.C. bosses.

  • rasengineers Apr 4, 8:44 a.m.

    If I am not mistaken, ALEC is the organization who wrote the bill Arizona adopted into law targeting illegals. The Arizona law was written at the behest of the private prison industry. It appears to me that ALEC is not acting in the best interest of the citizens of North Carolina. H542 protects only large corporations at the expense of the general public.

  • tmh1375 Apr 4, 8:31 a.m.

    I have to wonder how dramatically government would change if corporations were restricted access to lawmakers. Instead of government working for big business, maybe government could start working for the people.