State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – Provisions in the Arkansas tort reform law limiting punitive damages that can be awarded in a civil suit were ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
The ruling came in a lawsuit out of Lonoke County filed by rice farmers against a German multi-national corporation. The farmers claimed that their rice was contaminated by genetically altered strains that had not been approved for human consumption. The rice farmers won $5.9 million in compensatory damages and $42 million in punitive damages.
One of the more important provisions in Act 649 of 2003, Arkansas' tort reform law, had limits on punitive damages of $1 million. The Supreme Court ruling upheld a Lonoke Circuit Court ruling that the limit on punitive damages was unconstitutional.
Act 649 also limited awards in medical malpractice cases to the amounts actually billed. That provision was stricken by a state Supreme Court ruling in 2009. Another 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court struck down a provision in Act 649 that changed how fault and liability would be assigned among numerous parties who are found to be at fault. Defendants would pay according to a formula, based on their degree of fault, rather than having the defendant with the most money paying the most in damages.
In each case the Supreme Court relied heavily on the separation of powers articles in the constitution, which outline the powers of the legislative, the judicial and the executive branches. The court ruled that provisions in Act 649 are the prerogative of the Supreme Court and its committees on rules, evidence and procedure.
Last week's ruling by the high court struck one of the last remaining significant provisions of Act 649.
The German corporation had been conducting field trials of the genetically altered strains of rice. The tests took place in Louisiana, but the strains began showing up in Arkansas. The Lonoke County farmers argued that during the testing, the corporation had negligently allowed cross pollination with conventional strains of rice.
The presence of contaminated rice caused a severe decline in exports of Arkansas long grain rice from 2005 through 2008, because in many foreign markets genetically altered crops are prohibited. The loss of markets drove down the price of long grain rice and the rice farmers filed suit in Lonoke County Circuit Court in 2006.
In a pre-trial motion the rice farmers asked the circuit court to declare unconstitutional the limits on punitive damages in the Arkansas tort reform law. Their argument was that the limits violated the separation of powers doctrine in the state constitution.
States Against Robo-calls to Cell Phones
The Arkansas attorney general is one of 53 attorneys general from the 50 states and U.S. territories who have asked Congress to reject a federal bill that would allow telemarketers to make automated "robo-calls" to cell phones. Robo-calls for commercial purposes are prohibited in Arkansas and many other states, but federal laws pre-empt state laws.
A robo-call is a tape recorded message, rather than a call from a live person. Computers can cheaply generate thousands of robo-calls in brief periods of time. When a person receives a robo-call on his cell phone, it costs in either minutes or money.
H.R. 3035 is in the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the U.S. House of Representatives. It would open loopholes in state and federal "Do Not Call" statutes, under which people can sign up to prevent telemarketers from calling them. H.R. 3035 is supported by collection agencies and financial service industries.