Wisconsin governor signs liability cap

Trial lawyers say they will fight the new limit.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted April 10, 2006

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Wisconsin physicians succeeded in their effort to reinstate a cap on noneconomic damages when Gov. Jim Doyle on March 22 signed into law a $750,000 limit on jury awards.

The Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill two weeks earlier. It had strong support from the medical community, which said the measure was needed to preserve access to care.

The new cap will not be adjusted for inflation and will be reviewed every two years by the board that approves fee changes to the state's Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund. It took effect April 6.

"While we are extremely pleased to have this new law, we still must recognize that a $750,000 cap is among the highest in the nation," said Wisconsin Medical Society President Mark Belknap, MD. "We'll watch closely to see that it's having the desired effect of stabilizing insurance premiums and discouraging baseless lawsuits that are nonetheless expensive to defend."

Doyle's approval came just three months after he vetoed a $450,000 cap approved by lawmakers. After consulting legal experts, he believes the new limit stands a better chance of being upheld by the state Supreme Court, he said.

"The court will have to make its own decision, but I believe this bill represents a reasonable compromise," Doyle said.

The WMS and the Wisconsin Hospital Assn. joined with legislators to determine a cap that could address the concerns of the state Supreme Court, which struck down Wisconsin's 10-year-old ceiling last July.

The court ruled the $445,775 limit was arbitrarily set and violated plaintiffs' equal protection rights because it was too low. Doyle said he rejected the $450,000 proposal because he believed it would not pass the high court's constitutional test.

Trial lawyers denounced Doyle's approval of the $750,000 cap and have pledged to fight it in court.

The new law "takes away the rights of the most severely injured to be treated equally," said Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers President Daniel A. Rottier. The WATL disputes arguments that a pain and suffering cap will reduce medical liability insurance rates and keep doctors practicing in the state.

"It appears that it will again be up to the Supreme Court to be the true guardian of our constitutional rights," Rottier said.

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