Ohio needs to address frivolous lawsuit abuse

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 26, 2004

Fact or fiction? In 2002, a convicted rapist sued a hospital where he raped a patient in her bed. The man claimed the hospital failed to protect visitors and patients, therefore allowing him to commit his crime. He sought $2 million from the hospital for his "pain and suffering."

Fact of fiction? In Dayton, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Boomer, a dog, seeking $25,000 for severe emotional distress and psychological damage. You see, Boomer's collar caused second-degree burns on his neck when he tried to run through an invisible electronic fence buried in his owner's back yard.

Fact or fiction? A rural Ohio obstetrician's liability insurance premium increased from $14,000 to $25,000 in a short period of time. The huge increase forced the doctor to discontinue practicing, and in turn forced his patients to drive longer distances, or forgo prenatal care.

Email newsletter signup

Sadly, all of these stories are true. For what it's worth, the Erie County Common Pleas Court threw out the rapist's lawsuit. Boomer's lawyer is a former Ohio Lieutenant governor and Dayton Mayor. And the doctor's story is unfortunately all too familiar in communities across our state.

The common lesson -  Ohio's civil justice system is in dire need of an overhaul.

Just he mention of civil justice reform caused the eyes of

most Ohioans to glaze over. But the facts are anything but boring. Before moving on, consider the following.

4According to the American Tort Reform Association, Ohio's civil justice system costs an Ohio family of four approximately $2,500 a year. You pay more for products and services at businesses

pass on the cost of litigation.

4The National Federation of Independent Businesses issued a report recently stating one in three Ohio businesses (i.e. your employers) has either been sued or threatened with a lawsuit in the past five years.

The Ohio Coalition Against Abuse conducted a study

that says a civil lawsuit is file ever 17 minutes.

We live in a state where lawsuit abuse is out of control. Without some reasonable reforms to our civil justice system soon, you and I will continue to feel the impact as businesses move out of the state, taking jobs and millions of dollars with them. The cost of medical care and access to good doctors will also be affected.

Reforms to the system are long overdue. Ohio needs to lift the threat of frivolous litigation that is discouraging new businesses to locate in Ohio, and simultaneously, is costing existing business a significant amount of money and time. We need reasonable limitations on when lawsuits can be filed. We need to put a stop to situations like the rapist's suit against the hospital and the case filed on behalf of the dog. In both of those situations, as outlandish as they are, lawyers likely had to be hired by the organizations being sued, and that cost, no doubt, was passed on to consumers.

Ohio also needs reasonable caps on punitive damages that can be awarded in civil suits. Punitive damages are awarded by juries above and beyond amounts awarded for pain and suffering and economic loss. Without a fair ceiling on punitive damage awards, we continue to cultivate an environment in which trial lawyers are motivated by a lottery mentality to file lawsuit after lawsuit, in search of the big payday that comes with the multi-million dollar awards or huge settlements to avoid larger verdicts. Meanwhile, businesses are motivated to find greener pastures where the threat of big pay-outs is not as high and where they can spend their time and money doing business and creating jobs - not defending lawsuits.

While the General Assembly has nibbled around the edges of civil justice reform recently, we need to enact sweeping reforms that make real changes to the system. We need reasonable reforms that do not shut the doors of the courthouse to those with legitimate claims.

When I was Attorney General, we strongly defended a civil justice reform bill enacted in 1996, all the way up to the Ohio Supreme Court. Unfortunately, that law was overturned, not on its merits, but because the high court ruled the bill was not appropriately enacted by the General Assembly. The court said the bill dealt with more than one subject - a violation of Ohio's Constitution. I also drafted legislation that was signed into law that same year to stem lawsuit abuse by prison inmates. The result? a significant reduction of frivolous lawsuits.

As the former Wood County Prosecuting Attorney and Ohio Attorney General, I know first-hand the value of our civil justice system. It works best when the resources of our courts are focused on the timely deliberation of legitimate claims. It is time for the legislature to take another serious run at enacting reforms.

Ohio's civil justice reform needs to ensure the rights of Ohioans are protected while creating an environment that encourages investment in Ohio and creation of new jobs in our communities.

If we continue to allow frivolous lawsuits by rapists and pets, we're barking up the wrong tree.

Betty Montgomery is Ohio's Auditor of State.