In July, former Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey filed a lawsuit challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that the state Legislature voted to put on the November ballot, which limits civil lawsuit damages and the contingency fees attorneys receive. The measure would give the Legislature power to change, repeal or adopt rules for the state’s courts. Secretary of State, Mark Martin, is named as the defendant in the suit.
The proposed measure would limit noneconomic lawsuit damages awarded to $500,000 and punitive lawsuit damages would be capped at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages (whichever sum is greater). The Legislature would be able to increase these limits with a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. It also would cap attorneys’ contingency fees at 33 1/3 percent of the net amount recovered.
Those who have been against the proposal believe if it took effect the new structure would supersede juries while placing arbitrary limits on damages. “This proposal would close the doors to the courthouse for ordinary citizens and effectively extinguish their right to a jury trial in all cases,” the lawsuit states. The proposal also tries to unconstitutionally combine four separate and disparate proposals and violates the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches, according to documents, which indicate, “(The proposal) attempts to claw back what the Arkansas Legislature has previously admitted and recognized as the Arkansas Supreme Court’s vested constitutional, inherent and statutory authority.”
However, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce recently rejected the motion without actually ruling on the lawsuit’s merits. He said Humphrey still has an adequate remedy left through that lawsuit, and he acknowledged that whatever decision he made would likely be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Pierce’s decision gave both sides more time to flesh out the case in legal briefs and make a determination whether it should proceed to trial.
David Couch, an attorney representing Humphrey, wasn’t surprised. “I expected that ruling,” he said. “I think that Judge Pierce knows the Supreme Court will ultimately decide this and it needs to be decided before the election.”
Carl Vogelpohl, campaign manager for Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, the group campaigning for the measure, agreed. “Ultimately, this lawsuit will be decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court and we remain confident that the Court will allow Arkansans to vote on Issue 1 and decide whether Arkansas should be a tort reform state like most of the country,” he added.
Vogelpohl had originally stated, prior to Pierce’s decision, “It is now time to let the voters decide the issue. Once again, trial lawyers are attempting to use the court to protect their own pocketbooks by seeking to deny Arkansas voters a voice.”
Many of Arkansas’ state’s attorneys and the Arkansas Bar Association oppose changes to the judiciary, which primarily has backing in business communities as companies believe awards should be reasonably limited. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce supports the proposal. Issue 1 is one of up to five proposals that could be on the ballot in November.