On January 27, 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a tort reform bill into law as 2011 Wisconsin Act 2. The bill will apply to actions that are filed on or after the Act’s effective date (which would be the day after the Act’s publication date). Publication can occur any time from the day that the governor signs a bill to not more than 10 working days later. Governor Walker intends for the bill to take effect immediately.
The bill has sparked heated debate throughout the legal communities in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Defense Counsel, an association of litigation defense attorneys, have praised the bill. The Wisconsin Association for Justice, an association of litigation plaintiff’s attorneys, have oppossed the bill.
The new Act will bring major changes to Wisconsin’s current litigation system. For all plaintiffs that commence lawsuits for personal injuries after the effective date of the Act, punitive damages will be capped at two times the amount of compensatory damages awarded or $200,000.00, whichever is greater. Critics state that this new stringent standard will make it more difficult to obtain punitive damages in lawsuits against drunk drivers who kill or injure others. However, the legislature amended the Act to make the punitive damages cap inapplicable to lawsuits related to operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. In addition, the Act will impose a higher standard for the admissability of expert witnesses in state courts. Under the Act, courts will be required to follow the federal rule called the Daubert standard. Also, the Act prevents reports by state regulators from being used in civil and criminal cases. There are also several other provisions including a limit to noneconomic damages for medical malpractice in nursing homes to $750,000.00.
The Act will apply to all cases filed after the effective date including those cases where the plaintiff was injured before the effective date. This could create a possible constitutional challenge to those who were injured prior to the law taking effect. In any event, plaintiff attorneys are rushing to file lawsuits on behalf of their injured clients in order to avoid the punitive damages cap.
The passage of this Act should result in a more predictable litigation climate in Wisconsin by eliminating extremely high damage awards.