Policy Brief: A Biblical Perspective on Ballot Issue 1
Synopsis. Ballot Issue 1 is a proposed state constitutional amendment that changes how lawsuits are handled in Arkansas. Issue 1 restricts attorney contingency fees. It limits the amount of money juries can award in punitive damages and noneconomic damages when a person is injured or killed by someone else’s negligence. It also lets the Arkansas Legislature restrict evidence that can be used in lawsuits and in all other courts. Does scripture address this? Below are a few points to consider.
What Is Civil Justice? Civil justice is a way people obtain justice when they have been harmed by someone, but the offense isn’t necessarily a crime. If someone is robbed, they can press charges against the thief in criminal court to get justice. If someone’s property is destroyed because of another person’s negligence, they can file a lawsuit against the person responsible in civil court to get justice.
Civil Justice in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses outlined a system of civil justice. For example, Exodus 21:18-19 says if a one man injures another so that he cannot work, he must pay the injured man’s lost wages, and Exodus 21:28-32 contains civil remedies for people injured or killed by another person’s ox. In the Old Testament, leaders conducted court hearings and addressed legal matters at the city gates (Ruth 4:1-11; Joshua 20:4). Judges and 1 Samuel indicate judges and prophets heard and settled disputes between people (Judges 4:4-5; 1 Samuel 7:15). All of these are examples of civil justice carried out in the Bible.
The Purpose of Civil Justice. Among other things, scripture indicates civil justice should:
- Issue objective rulings (Exodus 23:2-3)
- Show no favoritism (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17)
- Settle disputes (Judges 4:5)
- Correct wrongdoing (Amos 5:10)
- Establish justice (Amos 5:15)
- Protect the poor from exploitation (Ex. 23:6; Prov. 22:22)
Issue 1 Puts a Price Tag On Human Life. When a person with little or no income—like a stay-at-home mom, a child, or a retired grandmother—is seriously injured or killed by someone else’s negligence, noneconomic damages are the only damages they or their family may be able to collect. Issue 1 sets a cap so that $500,000 is the most juries can award in noneconomic damages in these cases. In other words, $500,000 is all the life of a stay-at-home mom is worth if she dies because a car manufacturer knowingly equipped her van with shoddy tires.
Issue 1 Puts the Poor at a Disadvantage. Those who cannot pay lawyers hundreds of dollars per hour to represent them in court often hire attorneys based on contingency fees—meaning the lawyer is paid if he or she wins the case and the jury awards money to the injured person. By limiting contingency fees, Issue 1 makes it harder for poor people to acquire legal representation when they are injured by someone else’s negligence.
Issue 1 Threatens Justice. By letting politicians make rules about the admission of evidence in lawsuits and in all other courts, Issue 1 makes it possible that many legitimate cases will never go to court. In the past, lobbyists have tried to convince the Legislature to prevent nursing home inspection reports from being used as evidence in lawsuits against nursing homes. Without evidence, there is no case. Restricting evidence this way fails to establish justice.
Issue 1 Lets Wrongdoing Go Uncorrected. The threat of an expensive lawsuit motivates many nursing homes and other corporations not to cut corners or jeopardize the safety of others. By capping noneconomic and punitive damages, Issue 1 makes it possible for wealthy corporations to neglect, injure, and even cause the death of other people without facing more than $500,000 in consequences. Many companies consider $500,000 reasonable and affordable. Charging them $500,000 when they harm another person won’t be enough to discourage them from continuing to hurt people in the future.
Questions and Answers About Issue 1
- What will change if Issue 1 Passes? Today, when a corporation gets sued for injuring someone, a jury awards money to the victim based on the facts of the case. Issue 1 ties the hands of juries. Under Issue 1, juries won’t be able to force corporations to pay victims more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages even in cases of severe injury or death.
- Aren’t there too many lawsuits? Yes. Unfortunately, Issue 1 does not fix that problem. Nothing in Issue 1 penalizes frivolous lawsuits or unethical lawyers. Special interests wrote Issue 1 to protect big trucking companies, corporate nursing homes, and other powerful businesses from having to pay when they severely injure or kill someone.
- Does Issue 1 put a price tag on human life? Yes. It sets a dollar limit ($500,000) on non-economic damages in cases when a person has been severely injured or killed, and it limits punitive damages awarded in cases when a person has been severely injured or killed. These damages cannot be raised without a two-thirds vote of the Arkansas Legislature. This means wealthy people with high incomes will be able to collect unlimited amounts of money in economic damages while the elderly, the disabled, or young children with no income will be able to collect no more than $500,000 in non-economic damages.
- Won’t Issue 1 improve Arkansas’ economy and bring more doctors? There is no indication that lawsuits are holding our economy back. Our bad tax structure is a much greater factor. One would be hard-pressed to name even one industry or health care facility that refused to locate in Arkansas simply because they were afraid of being sued. Doctors aren’t leaving small towns because of lawsuits and Issue 1 won’t bring them back.
- Don’t good doctors deserve protection from frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits? Yes, but Issue 1 does not provide that protection. Issue 1 does not penalize attorneys for filing frivolous lawsuits, and it does not require losers to pay for frivolous lawsuits. Issue 1 does nothing to spell out protections for doctors who are practicing defensive medicine.
- What is wrong with letting lawmakers decide which evidence can be considered in court? Lobbyists representing nursing homes, hospitals, and trucking companies will pressure lawmakers to restrict which evidence can be considered in court. In 2003, nursing home lobbyists tried to get the legislature to prohibit some state inspection reports, nursing home staff testimony, and similar evidence from some injury lawsuits. Without evidence, there is no case.
- Can churches and pastors encourage people to vote against Issue 1? Yes. Churches and pastors can oppose Issue 1 without concerns about their status with the Internal Revenue Service, because Issue 1 is not a political candidate running for office. Churches have always been able to oppose or support ballot measures like the state-run lottery or the constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
- Is Issue 1 a moral issue? Yes. Issue 1 puts a price tag on human life, and it tips the scales of justice against the poor and disadvantaged. The Bible says, “Do not rob the poor because he is poor [and defenseless], Nor crush the afflicted [by legal proceedings] at the gate [where the city court is held], For the Lord will plead their case And take the life of those who rob them” (Proverbs 22:22-23 AMP).