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Businesses V. Victims In Tort Battle

A gavel and stethoscope

For the second time in as many weeks, the Illinois House today held a special hearing known as a committee on the whole, centered on part of Gov. Bruce Rauner's "Turnaround Agenda" -- this time, centered on what business interests call "tort reform." Critics say it's tort deform.

Gov. Rauner and his business allies say Illinois legal system gives plaintiffs (and the trial lawyers that profit when their clients win) an unfair edge. They back Rauner's plan to prevent what's known as "venue shopping;" that's when lawsuits are filed somewhere lawyers expert will be friendly to their cause.

Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch's Travis Akin says small business owners frequently complain to him about Illinois' lawsuit climate. He says they fear that a single lawsuit will wipe them out. "Greedy personal injury lawyers have transformed the Land of Lincoln into the Land of Lawsuits. And this is driving businesses and jobs out of Illinois," Akin says. They say they want to restore "sanity" to the courts by restricting where lawsuits can be filed, setting liability standards, and limiting certain damages.

"It's a real issue, that has real impact on whether people have jobs or not. And it's something the legislature should pay particular attention to," says the state Chamber of Commerce director Todd Maisch.

But Maisch and others who share his view weren't invited to give testimony before the Illinois House. Rather, representatives heard one emotional story after another from victims like Linda Reynolds. A jury awarded the Missouri mother a $4.5 million judgment, but she received only a portion because of caps.

"I feel that money was money that was due me because they did something wrong, not me," Reynolds said tearfully."My life will never, ever be the same. I don't know ... if I'll be around for my 15-year-old to graduate from high school." A jury had found a doctor and medical technician ignored a cancerous lump in her breast.

Rauner, a Republican, also wants a constitutional amendment in 2018 capping what he broadly phrases "unreasonable damages."

Elizabeth Sauter is the widow of state police trooper James Sauter, who was in his squad car on the shoulder of I-294 when a truck driver -- who'd logged too many hours behind the wheel -- fell asleep. The semi crossed over lanes of traffic, and caused a fiery crash.

"Anyone thinking about voting yes to a bill that would put a cap on civil wrongful death lawsuits in the state of Illinois would also be voting yes to killing more innocent civilians," Elizabeth Sauter told members of the House. "Putting a cap on penalizing these companies just further encourages them to make careless decisions and continue unsafe practices. Putting a cap on these lawsuits mean you care more about big businesses than you do the citizens that you represent."

Sauter says the $10.8 million settlement she was awarded a year ago shouldn't be considered "winning the lottery." Sauter says it was never about money; she says he's using it to help pay for a state police memorial park in Springfield. Sauter also says the money is being used to care for her deceased husband's family and to create a scholarship at his high school. She says she also is on the board of The Chicago 100 Club -- an organization that helps families of first responders killed in the line of duty.

Beyond the policy debate, there's a political divide rooted in campaign spending and donations. Gov. Rauner is heavily backed by business interests. He wants to limit trial lawyers' campaign contributions --- he says it's corrupt that attorneys can donate to judges. "It's the system, it's the system that has conflicts of interests built into it," Rauner said this spring. Democrats are traditional allies of the trial bar.

The special hearings are being seen as Speaker Madigan sending Gov. Rauner a message. Just as with its workers' compensation committee of the whole, the House didn't actually vote on any tort proposals.

But Madigan has scheduled a vote for Thursday on another controversial Rauner plan, to create local right-to-work zones, despite the governor not having actually introduced a specific measure in bill form. Unions are galvanized against the concept, which they refer to as right-to-work-for-less; Rauner says it'll make Illinois more competitive.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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