|Posted on Monday, September 15, 2003|
We Mean Business. Illinois Business.
Governor signs Several Liability Act into law
SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Rod Blagojevich has signed into law a revised version of employers' liability legislation that opens the door to larger judgments in lawsuits against employers, manufacturers and other parties.
Blagojevich received a resubmitted version of House Bill 2784 - also known as the Several Liability Act - sponsored by Chicago Democratic State Sen. John Cullerton.
Illinois trial attorneys rewrote the legislation in the spring after the Illinois Supreme Court in November declared that the initial law was unconstitutional.
Under the previous version of the act, defendants were liable based on their degree of responsibility. Under the revised act that Blagojevich signed into law June 4, defendants' fault is allocated based on their ability to pay.
What this means to Illinois businesses:an employer can face 100 percent liability even if a court has ruled its fault in an accident is less than 25 percent.
According to the Illinois Civil Justice League, the law can now hold any third party liable to any degree in lawsuits specific to construction, product liability and personal injury.
"It's an outrage," said ICJL President Ed Murnane, in a prepared statement shared with members of the association - a coalition of Illinois citizens, small and large businesses, associations, professional societies, nonprofits and local governments.
"The trial lawyers in this state have put asbestos companies out of business and they need someone to sue, and our General Assembly appears quite willing to accommodate them."
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce also opposes the law.
"This law makes someone who is only 1 percent at fault liable for up to 100 percent of the damages," said Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley.
Wood River attorney Leonard Berg said assigning percentages of liability could be tricky.
The concept of joint and several liability allows the victim to recover the full amount of damages from any one of the lawsuit parties. For example, in the case of a tanker truck colliding with an automobile, the court could award the victim any amount of the total judgment from any one of the parties - the tanker's manufacturer, the tanker driver, the driver's employer, the automobile manufacturer, the automobile gas tank's manufacturer and others.
"Different states have different rules in this regard," Berg said. "Some states say you can't really enforce joint liability unless one of the defendants is at least 25 percent at fault. This is definitely pro-plaintiff legislation."
According to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, the state's Supreme Court decision in November was based on the fact that because an employer's liability is limited by workers' compensation, the earlier legislation limited the amount of damages a plaintiff could seek from other parties in the lawsuit.
"While some people may be trying to radicalize this legislation, it simply doesn't warrant that," said Robert Bingle, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. "It's merely affirming the intent of the legislature in the 1986 reform."
Bill St. Peters, owner of Safety Partners Ltd. in Godfrey and a workplace safety professional with more than 30 years' experience, said the Illinois General Assembly is to be commended anytime it holds fast to legislation that increases the level of safety for employees.
"I appreciate whenever the legislature puts teeth into a bill that can help the worker," St. Peters said. "Anything that fosters workplace safety - or that gets the attention of employers - is a good thing. All too often, employers don't take the OSHA laws seriously enough because the fine structure is not costly enough to be a severe deterrent. The federal penalties often don't affect the severity of the action."