Lawmakers who have put up obstacles to lawsuits against businesses are pushing a bill that would let plaintiffs recoup more money in actions against wind farms.
Senate Bill 167, which would let those who claim injuries from a wind farm go after greater damages in court, is scheduled to receive a hearing before the state Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee on Wednesday. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend and the chairman of the committee, has sponsored or co-sponsored numerous bills meant to curtail frivolous legal actions against businesses, including one that would force asbestos victims to jump through more legal hoops before they could file lawsuits.
And both the author of SB 167, state Sen. Frank Lasee, and a co-sponsor, state Rep. Andre Jacque, Republicans from De Pere, either have been sponsors or supporters of much of the same legislation. Neither could be immediately reached.
Grothman said he decided to take up SB 167 in his committee because of complaints he has heard from constituents who live near the Blue Sky Green Field wind farm near the town of Marshfield, which is in his district. Grothman said more than a dozen people have told him the wind farm, one of the largest in the state, has harmed their health and caused their property values to drop.
Of his previous work to prevent frivolous lawsuits, Grothman said, “It doesn’t mean that anyone shouldn’t ever win a lawsuit if they have been very clearly damaged.”
SB 167, in at least one way, would make it easier for someone living within a mile and a half of a wind farm to bring suits against the owner or operator of the project. The bill would bar companies sued by such residents from citing a previous government approval as a defense in court.
Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, a lobbying group registered as opposed to SB 167, said he is not aware of any ongoing lawsuits against members of his organizations. But that could change were the bill to become law, he said.
“This creates a liability where there currently is none,” Skewes said. “And where there is a liability created, the potential for cost increases for our customers is there.”
But perhaps more disconcerting to opponents is the boost the legislation would give to the damages a successful plaintiff could recover.
Current law allows someone alleging harm from a wind farm to be reimbursed for damages incurred from another person’s negligence or wrongful act. The bill would let plaintiffs also seek compensation for physical and emotional harm, the loss of property value and moving expenses.
Further, current law caps at $500 the amount of attorney fees that can be recovered in suits against wind farms. SB 167 instead would allow recovery of “reasonable attorney’s fees.”
Chris Kunkle, director of the Wisconsin Energy Business Association, said increasing the amount of damages that can be awarded would dangle an almost irresistible lure before trial lawyers. For that reason, many supporters of the wind industry had doubted Republican leaders would even give SB 167 a hearing.
“This had been laughed off by a lot of people,” Kunkle said, “because it was diametrically opposed to all the efforts made by the majority party in this area.”
Almost immediately upon taking control of the Statehouse in 2011, Republican legislators placed a priority on passing changes to tort laws. The second legislative act they passed that year put in place a number of provisions meant to shield businesses from lawsuits, including a limit on the amount of punitive damages that could be awarded by courts, obstacles to recovering damages from a single party for harm caused by a faulty product and a stricter standard governing the use of expert witnesses.
Their efforts have continued in the current legislative session. Besides the bill concerning asbestos lawsuits, Republican lawmakers have put forward proposals that would change what doctors must tell patients before performing medical procedures and place a cap on the amount a law firm hired by the state can be paid for a successful lawsuit.
In supporting SB 167, Grothman and his co-sponsors are pitting themselves against some of their chief allies in the push for changes to tort laws. Among those who are registered by the state Government Accountability Board as lobbying against the proposal are Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the biggest pro-business group in the state, and the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a group dedicated to fighting frivolous lawsuits.
“Based on existing common law,” according to a statement attributed to Andrew Cook, legislative director of the Civil Justice Council, “it appears that SB 167 is unnecessary and will only enrich plaintiffs’ attorneys by allowing higher attorney fees.”
Opposition to the bill, meanwhile, has made for some strange bedfellows. The accountability board’s website lists both environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and RENEW Wisconsin, and utility companies, such as the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Energy Corp., as lobbying against the bill. Such organizations are often at odds on other legislative matters.
The only groups listed as proponents are the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Coalition for Wisconsin Environmental Stewardship, a group that questions the safety of wind farms. Neither could be reached for comment by deadline Thursday afternoon.
Lasee has been a regular supporter of legislation aimed at the wind industry. This session, he has also sponsored Senate Bill 71, which would give local governments more control over the siting of wind farms. That bill received a public hearing on March 13 but has since stalled in the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications.
In previous debates over Lasee’s bill, proponents and opponents have furnished heaps of studies in support of their contentions, some suggesting that living near wind farms can be harmful to health and others suggesting just the opposite.
Grothman said he is certain what his constituents have told him is credible.
“They are a lot of very severely injured people,” he said, “who are having their health ruined and their property values plummet because of the inability of utilities to work with them on damages caused by the wind farm.”