What Is Issue 1?

Issue 1 is a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution.  The Arkansas Legislature voted to put Issue 1 on the November General Election ballot.  They wanted the citizens of Arkansas to vote on Issue 1.

Issue 1 asks voters to change the way tort lawsuits are handled in Arkansas.  A tort is a civil wrong that causes injury.  It is not a criminal action.  The injured victim can prove the liability, or fault, of the person who injured him in a court of law.  The judge and jury can decide how much the wrongdoer must pay to the injured person to compensate him for the damages.

For example, if a grandmother in a nursing home is neglected so that she gets severely infected bedsores, she could sue the nursing home.  If the jury finds the nursing home liable for causing the injury, they can award whatever amount of money they think compensates her for her pain and suffering.  They can award punitive damages to punish the nursing home. This motivates the nursing home to correct their mistreatment of residents.  This lawsuit would not be considered frivolous, or not worthy of taking seriously.  It has merit, or worth, because the facility was responsible for the injury.

Issue 1 asks voters to change this process, or reform tort law in four ways:

  1. Limiting attorneys’ contingency fees in civil actions. A contingency fee means the lawyer pays all the cost of preparing for and trying the case “up front,” and he does not get paid unless the case is won and damages awarded.  This is usually the only way people of limited means can bring a lawsuit.
  2. Limiting awards of punitive damages and non-economic damages in civil actions to $500,000. Punitive damages are to punish the wrongdoer.  Non-economic damages are to pay the injured person for pain and suffering.  They are not related to any money that might have been lost because of the injury.  Economic damages pay for the costs of the injury, like medical bills. People who are working and earning money also can be paid for the wages that will be lost because of the injury.  That might be for a lifetime.  The limit on the award is also called a cap.  There is no cap on economic damages.
  3. Requiring adjustments to the limitations on punitive and non-economic damage awards for inflation or deflation. The legislature can make the cap go up or down along with inflation or deflation in our economy.
  4. Providing that the General Assembly may amend or repeal a rule of pleading, practice, or procedure. The legislature can make the rules about how the courts operate, including what kind of evidence can be allowed.

People who want Issue 1 say tort reform is necessary to stop frivolous lawsuits that cost too much money.  They say jury-awarded damages are way too high and create a burden for the people who are sued.  They say the threat of being sued causes businesses not to locate in Arkansas.  In the case of medical tort, they say medical malpractice and liability insurance premiums are way too high because of the threat of malpractice lawsuits.  They say this causes the cost of healthcare to be high and causes a shortage of medical professionals especially in rural areas.

Family Council Action Committee opposes Issue 1 for two main reasons:

  • A cap on non-economic damages places a low value on human life, especially children, stay-at-home moms, and the elderly who have no income and would not be awarded economic damages. After attorney fees and the cost of trying the case are taken out, the injured person would receive very little compensation for pain and suffering.
  • Giving the legislature control over pleading, practice, and procedure takes the outcome out of the hands of a jury and takes away a citizen’s right to a jury trial. Experience has shown that most medical tort lawsuits do have merit and the jury decides the right way. The court recognizes most frivolous lawsuits are filed to get lots of money and throws them out.  Giving the legislature control means the legislature can decide what kind of evidence can be used in a lawsuit.  Letting the legislature decide how courts function opens the door for special interests to lobby for their own benefit.

What do we see happening if Issue 1 passes?  Injured poor and common Arkansans will be devalued and have little chance for justice.  The rich and powerful will not have many lawsuits brought against them when they injure someone.

Four ways this might come about:

  • Because of the cap, common Arkansans and people of limited means would be devalued. Their price tag would be only $500,000 even if they died because of negligence.  A rich person could get an unlimited economic damage award because he has a big-paying job.
  • Because of the cap, people of limited means would have difficulty even filing a lawsuit because lawyers won’t take the cases. It is not financially practical for them to take a case when the damage award may not even cover the cost of the trial.  That will close the courthouse door for the common folk.
  • With legislators making rules and special interests influencing the legislators, there might not even be enough evidence permitted to have a trial. Again, the door of the courthouse is blocked for regular people.
  • Big businesses, big hospitals, big nursing homes, big trucking companies will not be sued often, and if they are, they won’t have to pay much in damages. They will not be held to account for their negligence and harm they cause.  Taking away the threat of lawsuits could affect the safety of all of us.

Issue 1 tilts justice against the regular people and for the rich and powerful.