Group Hails Civil Litigation Reform Successes – Some Offense, Some Defense

According to their end of session lookback, Wisconsin Civil Justice Council continued to advance civil litigation reforms this past session, albeit without the sweeping reforms seen in the prior two sessions. WCJC recently released their end of session report noting the following enacted reforms:

  • Repeal of “False Claims for Medical Assistance Act” – Signed into Law (Act 55)
  • Adult Sponsor of Minor Driver Liability Reform – Signed into Law (Act 202)
  • Liability Limitations under Wisconsin’s Dog Bite Law – Signed into Law (Act 112)
  • Liability Limits for Ski Area Operators – Signed into Law (Act 168)
  • Immunity for Private Campgrounds – Awaiting Governor’s Signature

A top priority for WCJC was repealing Wisconsin’s false claims act, which was done in the budget. The act allowed individuals unaffiliated with the government to sue private businesses alleging fraud against the state’s medical assistance program. The person/lawyer who files the false claim, also known as a qui tam lawsuit, may be awarded up to 30 percent of the proceeds, in addition to costs and attorney fees. This bounty hunter aspect encourages litigation, needless, according to WCJC, given the active Medical Assistance Fraud Unit within the Department of Justice.

Wisconsin’s “dog bite” statute was a real liability bite for homeowners. Dog bites and other dog-related injuries accounted for more than one-third of all liability claim dollars paid out by homeowner’s insurance companies in 2014. Under prior law, a dog could cause minor property damage, which would count as the first bite, and then cause physical damage to an individual on the second bite. The owner would be liable for double damages for the second incident despite the innocuous nature of the “first bite.” Under 2015 Wisconsin Act 112, both bites must break the skin and cause permanent scarring or disfigurement and the owner must have known of the first bite.

Another sensible enactment was 2015 Wisconsin Act 202 which limits the liability of a parent or other adult sponsoring a minor obtaining a driver’s license. Wisconsin law requires a minor have an adult sponsor as a condition to obtaining a driver’s license. Well enough. But a separate law provided that the parents or adult sponsors have unlimited liability for that minor’s driving. Act 202 protects otherwise innocent sponsors by limiting the liability imputed to a parent or other adult sponsor to the greater of $300,000 or the limits of any insurance coverage.

Other enactments protect ski area and private campground owners and operators. Both laws, 2015 Wisconsin Act 168, relating to ski hills, and enrolled AB 174 (awaiting the Governor’s signature), relating to campgrounds, limit liability in light of the inherent risks associated with ski hill and campground activities.

In addition, bills aimed at repealing past reforms failed to pass. For example, one of WCJC’s top priorities last session, asbestos trust reforms, would have been undone by AB  862 (Rep. Wachs-D) and SB 723 (Sen. Vinehout-D). Both bills died in committee. While these and other bills opposed by WCJC never gained momentum given the current makeup of the legislature, they will return with more political strength if the majorities flip.

For more information on these and other civil justice initiatives, go to the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council’s end of session report.