LITTLE ROCK—A plan to ask Arkansas voters to limit damages awarded in lawsuits and give the Legislature control over court rules was approved by the state Senate on Thursday, despite criticism from opponents who call the move an attempt by lawmakers to take over the judicial system.
The majority-Republican Senate voted 21-10 to refer the proposed constitutional amendment to voters next year. The measure is expected to easily clear the House, where more than half of the members in the majority-Republican chamber are co-sponsoring it.
The proposal would place limits on punitive and non-economic damages awarded in civil lawsuits, and restrict the contingency fees lawyers could collect in those cases. It would also require legislative approval for any rules of pleading, practice or procedure for state courts.
The ballot measure has the backing of business groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce, who say it'll create a better legal environment for companies and prevent frivolous lawsuits.
"I think it's absolutely necessary to regain the power of the legislative branch to put forth any civil justice reform," Republican Sen. Missy Irvin said before the vote. "I'm asking you to allow those who are smart enough to serve on a jury, they're smart enough to vote on this at the ballot box."
The proposed amendment, if approved by voters, would limit punitive damages in lawsuits to $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages. Non-economic damages would be limited to $250,000 or $500,000 for all beneficiaries of a claimant who died. Attorneys' contingency fees would be limited to 33.3 percent of the net amount of money recovered through a settlement, arbitration or judgment.
The Legislature could increase the damage caps but couldn't lower them, if voters approved the amendment.
The measure faces opposition from the Arkansas Bar Association, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court this week objected to the provision allowing the Legislature to control court rules. Democratic Sen. Will Bond called the measure a "wholesale takeover of the judiciary."
"Don't fill the lungs of liberty with this smoke screen to satisfy folks out there who want to limit a fundamental right, and your right to civil jury trial is a fundamental right," Bond said.
Republicans have been pushing for similar measures since the state Supreme Court in 2011 struck down a state cap on punitive damages. The state Supreme Court removed a similar proposed constitutional amendment that would have limited damages in medical lawsuits from the ballot last year. Justices said that proposal's wording didn't fully describe to voters what it would do.