Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) has signed a tort reform bill (A.B. 1) designed to provide businesses and nursing homes with added protection from lawsuits.

Passed 57-36 along party lines by the Wisconsin Assembly during a special January 20, 2011, session, the legislation sets new standards for burdens of proof and expert testimony, and establishes a cap on punitive damages in personal injury lawsuits. Noting that the bill will “help create a job friendly legal environment,” Walker said after the state senate approved the bill January 18 that Wisconsin has “sent a clear message to employers that we are open for business.”

According to an “Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau” contained in the 32-page bill, the legislation “makes several changes to current law regarding civil actions for negligence in long-term care facilities product liability, actions in strict liability, punitive damage awards, and awards for defending a frivolous lawsuit.”

Among other things, the bill (i) requires plaintiffs to meet tougher standards in proving a product defective; (ii) blocks lawsuits from going forward when plaintiffs cannot prove who harmed them; (iii) limits noneconomic damages, such as those for pain and suffering, to $750,000 in medical malpractice cases at nursing homes; and (iv) caps punitive damages at $200,000 or double the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is higher. The bill also “limits a defendant’s liability for damage caused by a manufactured product to those products manufactured within 15 years before the claim accrues unless the manufacturer specifies that the product will last longer or unless the action is based on a claim for damages caused by a latent disease.”

The law takes effect on the first day of the second month after publication and applies to those injured before its approval, so plaintiffs’ attorneys are reportedly rushing to file personal injury cases before it officially takes effect. The legislation has apparently drawn criticism from some Wisconsin lawmakers and trial attorneys who claim the measure will not create jobs but will hurt consumers and patients. “It just prevents those wrongdoers from having their day in court to be held accountable for their actions,” Senator Julie Lassa (D) reportedly told a news source. See Governor Scott Walker Press Release, January 18, 2011; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 18 and 25, 2011; Courthouse News Service, January 21, 2011.