Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Litigation Reform

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety held a hearing on Jan. 30 on a bill that would reform Wisconsin’s civil liability statutes to lower litigation costs for Wisconsin businesses and government. SB 645, authored by Sens. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and David Craig (R-Big Bend) and Reps. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and John Nygren (R-Marinette), would further improve Wisconsin’s litigation climate by making changes to discovery and class action statutes, among other reforms.

The bill’s authors began the hearing by emphasizing their goal to draft legislation that makes Wisconsin consistent with federal rules and other states’ procedures and maintains fairness in Wisconsin’s civil justice system.

NFIB and ATRA testify in support of SB 645.

A wide variety of groups testified in support of the bill. The National Federation of Independent Business, Wisconsin Chapter, and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) focused on the costs savings for businesses small and large that could be affected by the debilitating costs of discovery. According to ATRA’s testimony, from 2006 to 2008, the average company paid average discovery costs per case of $600,000 to $3 million. Under the bill’s reforms, they said, businesses will be able to settle based on the merits of the cases, not simply in fear of paying these massive discovery costs.

WMC testifies in support of SB 645.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s (WMC) testimony also emphasized the importance of lowering litigation costs for Wisconsin businesses. WMC highlighted the provision of the bill that prohibits the Department of Revenue (DOR) from hiring third-party audit firms on a contingency fee basis for unclaimed property audits. DOR testified for information only, expressing concerns that this provision could increase costs and make it difficult to hire auditors, but WMC testimony assured legislators that contingency fee arrangement bans have been implemented in other states and would not prohibit audits from taking place in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Defense Counsel (WDC) later testified in support of the bill’s provisions regarding discovery and lawsuit lending. The bill’s limit on discovery of electronically stored information would reduce overburdensome discovery requests, and its proportionality requirements would prevent unnecessary “fishing expeditions.” WDC also noted that regulating lawsuit lending makes Wisconsin’s civil liability procedures fairer by protecting consumers and ensuring transparency in civil cases.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) testified on the class action portions of the bill. The bill would make class action statutes more fair and efficient by requiring the type and scope of injury of the representative class members be typical of the type and scope of injury being alleged by the absent class members, thus precluding “no-injury” class actions. The bill also requires class members be verifiable by reliable and feasible means and would provide for interlocutory appeal of class certification. ILR said these changes would make Wisconsin’s civil justice system fairer and less costly.

The Wisconsin Builders Association testified in support of the bill’s provisions related to statute of repose. The revised limits will bring consistency among Wisconsin liability laws and align Wisconsin better with other states that have significantly lower limits. These lower time limits will promote efficiency and reduce burdens and costs on the state and businesses forced to investigate distant claims.

The Wisconsin Insurance Alliance also testified in support of the bill’s provision adjusting the interest rate insurers must pay on overdue claims. The bill provides that the rate mirror interest rates on general judgments and self-adjust consistent with markets.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Justice also submitted testimony in support of the bill.

The State Bar of Wisconsin testified for information only, seeking amendments to the bill’s limits on discovery, adjustment of interest rates on overdue claims, changes to statutes of repose, and definition of consumer lawsuit lending.

Those testifying against the bill, including the Wisconsin Association for Justice and the Alliance for Responsible Consumer Legal Funding, arguing that the changes stray too far from simply federalizing Wisconsin statute. Many said that there is no evidence of discovery abuses in Wisconsin and that state judges consistently keep discovery in check. However, supporters refuted that the bill would give judges guidelines related to discovery and class actions that are currently missing from state statute.

The Assembly Committee on Judiciary held a hearing on the bill on Jan. 4. Reps. Ron Tusler (R-Appleton) and Cody Horlacher (R-Mukwonago) have offered an Assembly Substitute Amendment that would remove the class action provisions of the bill.

Committee votes on the bill have not yet been scheduled.