Republicans send lawsuit reform bills to Gov. Dayton

Some may be destined for the veto pen

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

Republicans sent a fistful of lawsuit reform bills to the desk of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday, Feb. 8.

“The hungry lion has been fed,” quipped Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, noting the bipartisan support for some bills.

Democrats expect Dayton to veto at least some of the legislation that House and Senate Republicans herald as common sense and good for the state’s business climate.

Some Democrats see it differently.

“There’s a rank hypocrisy here,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, an attorney, arguing Republicans seem at peace with corporations suing corporations but object to suits filed by individuals against corporations.

The proposed changes to state law would do a number of things.

For one thing, the statute of limitations on filing a suit would be decreased by from six to four years.

“It makes sense,” said Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan, author of two House bills.

Republicans argue the six year statute of limitations was put into effect in the days when legal documents were sent by Pony Express.

Another bill would have judges weighing the size of attorney fees in a lawsuit in relation to the size of the award to the plaintiff.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, an attorney, styled ramifications from the legislation as an “unprecedented intrusion” into attorney/client privilege.

Republican argue the bill is common sense.

Another bill dealing with class-action lawsuits — suits in which a large number of people bring a claim to court — would allow defendants to appeal the class-action suit earlier in the legal process. In doing so, the discovery process of the suit, the collection of facts and testimony, would be halted until the court of appeals rendered a ruling.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, an attorney, argued the discovery process for defendants can be extremely expensive and the sooner courts are allowed to make decisions on the merits of lawsuits “the better off we all are,” she said.

But Latz countered by arguing that it makes no sense for attorneys to take on baseless lawsuits.  Legal practices can be destroyed because too much time and money have been sunk into cases ultimately dismissed, he explained.

Although Democrats charge that the Republicans legislation will serve to block entry into the courts for people with good claims but small pocketbooks, Republicans dismiss the charge.

“The exact opposite (is true),” Ortman said.

Republicans propose increasing the threshold amount of claims obtainable in conciliation court from $7,500 to $10,000.

On the Senate floor, Ortman said she personally wished the amount had been higher.

Ortman styled conciliation court as less formal, less expensive for people to pursue claims.

Under the Republican bill, claims in excess of $10,000 would have to be sought in regular court. “I’m hoping he (Dayton) will sign it,” Ortman said of the legislation.

Simon and Latz argued the legislation should be viewed in the broader context of a national effort by big insurance companies to subdue the courts.

One bastion of business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, already ranks the Minnesota courts as pretty good.

In the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform 2010 survey ranking of the states with the best and worst legal climates in the country, Minnesota was ranked 11th.

The states with the worst legal climates, according to the survey, were California (46th), Alabama (47th), Mississippi (48th), Louisiana (49th), and West Virginia (50th).

The states with the best legal climates were Delaware (1st), North Dakota (2nd), Nebraska (3rd), Indiana (4th) and Iowa (5th).