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A crawl space too small

Russ Golla - Wisconsin Association for Justice president

Russ Golla is the 60th president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice. He has been a partner at Anderson, O’Brien, Bertz, Skrenes & Golla since 1986.

My job, like any Wisconsin trial lawyer, is to make sure safety rules are followed. That means if you are injured or a loved one is injured because of someone else’s carelessness, shortcuts, or cover-up of a problem, we’re here to help you.

In my legal career, it has always seemed like a life’s purpose grounded in common sense. Common sense, however, seems to elude many of our legislators, as evidenced by their passing dozens of unnecessary immunity laws in recent years.

Immunity is a get-out-of-jail-free card. It means that even if the wrongdoers were clearly careless and took shortcuts, they can’t be held responsible for their conduct. It’s a legislative clarion call for freedom from responsibility as business owners and special interests groups beat a path to Madison regardless of the party in charge.

Two things happen if a business is given immunity. First, there is no responsibility for bad conduct. Second, immunity runs counter to what we teach our children – own up, and take responsibility for your actions. In the end, ignoring safety is wrong.

Campground owners won their immunity battle this year with the support of powerful business groups. Their arguments were largely grounded in the notion that the threat of a lawsuit drives up the cost of business.

Before the tort reformers start rolling their eyes, let’s stop to think about the inherent contradiction in that position. If the fear of being sued over a safety violation adds to these businesses’ costs, wouldn’t it be cheaper (and easier) to keep your campground safe from day one? A pro-immunity witness testified that, as a result of one particular suit, his campground has actually become safer. If all businesses worried about safety as much as they do about being sued, my colleagues would have a lot more free time on their hands.

The current Legislature’s infatuation with immunity defies logic. Under Wisconsin law, if you’re wounded at a shooting range, anyone who works there is immune and you get the medical bills.

Take the family to a stable for horseback riding and you better hope both the horse and the equipment you get are in good shape. If they aren’t and you or your child get hurt, you get the medical bills and they walk away.

Some years ago the city of Kenosha hired lifeguards without checking to see if they were up to the task. Two boys drowned but the city had immunity.

The lifeguard on duty was worried fish would attack her if she went in the water. Imagine the agony those families live with every day.

When immunity is granted in such cases, corporate responsibility becomes less of a necessity. It’s unfortunate because there are countless Wisconsin businesses, large and small, doing the right thing every day by taking responsibility for their actions.

Cut through the political double-speak out there and you’ll find an imperfect system. None of us expects to live in a bubble, but as a profession we believe everyone should have a reasonable expectation of safety. Civilized society can’t exist without it. Our message to all who have sought and are seeking immunity – take responsibility, put people ahead of profits, and don’t play politics with our safety.

The irony in all this is that our justice system was founded on the bedrocks of fairness and access to the courts, standards routinely ignored in today’s politics. One of the best perspectives on the impact of immunity comes from Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and former Republican Assembly speaker, David Prosser who, in 2009, said, “…as far as government responsibility for torts is concerned, immunity has become the rule and liability has become the rare exception.”

Justice, wrote Prosser, has been “confined to a crawl space too narrow for most tort victims to fit.”

Exactly.

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