Changes to Pennsylvania’s joint and several doctrine that will make a defendant’s damages equal to his liability are almost certain to become law with the June 21 passage of the legislation by the Senate. Business leaders and other Harrisburg observers indicate the House is almost certain to send the bill, SB 1131, to Governor Tom Corbett without amendments. The Governor has said he will sign the bill into law.
The bill would make the damages in civil liability cases reflect a defendant’s degree of liability with the exception of a defendant deemed to be more than 60 percent liable. Current law allows a judge or jury to declare a defendant 100 percent responsible for damages even when the defendant is minimally liable.
Approval of the bill was a striking victory for the business community, which has been pushing for the change in the law -- which it calls the Fair Share Act --for the past ten years. The General Assembly did approve the change in 2002 and 2006, but then Governor Rendell vetoed it both times.
An official with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry said that the state’s system of joint and several liability has been used by personal injury attorneys as a search for “deep pocket” defendants, regardless of their degree of responsibility.
“Joint and several liability has become nothing more than a tool to force settlements from job creators and health-care providers that might be minimally at fault or not a fault at all, but that can’t afford to risk a potentially costly and protracted court battle,” said PA Chamber Vice President Gene Barr.
Legislative Counsel for the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, which represents the trial bar, said that the real losers with the legislation are the victims not the lawyers.
“This is a very good bill for big insurance and big corporations,” said Mark Phenicie. “It’s very bad for small business and the victims.”