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Panel to vote on tort-reform bill

A bill that would make several changes to the state’s civil-litigation rules appears to have a chance of passing this legislative session after all.

Assembly Bill 773 would make various changes to the state’s discovery rules, set up a framework for regulating consumer-lawsuit financing, decrease the interest rate charged to insurers for unpaid overdue claims and pull back the deadline set by the construction statute of repose. The statute of repose now shields builders and others involved in construction projects from lawsuits alleging negligent design if an injury occurs more than 10 years after those projects have been substantially completed.

Lawmakers had originally proposed narrowing that window to 6 years but are now considering setting the limit at 7 years instead.

The bills also propose repealing and replacing the state’s rule governing class-action lawsuits. The Wisconsin Supreme Court had already adopted a proposal from the Judicial Council to strengthen that rule so that it would mirror its federal counterpart. The section of the bill concerning class-action rules is only one part that has elicited misgivings from council members, who argue it would be going too far.

The bill’s prospects had appeared dim as a recently as Monday. But later that day, the bill was scheduled for a vote before the Assembly Judiciary Committee at 5 p.m. on Tuesday in Room 400 North East of the state Capitol. A favorable recommendation from the committee would mean the bill could reach the Assembly floor on Thursday, which lawmakers in that chamber say is the last day they plan to meet in the current legislative session.

Before the committee vote was scheduled for Tuesday, State Rep. Mark Born, a Republican from Beaver Dam and one the authors of the bill, introduced an amendment that would make these changes to the bill:

  • Increase the interest rate charged on overdue insurance claims to 7.5 percent instead of the originally proposed prime rate plus one percentage point.
  • Increase the window of time during which plaintiffs could sue a contractor for negligent design to allow suits within 7 years of when an injury occurred instead of the originally proposed 6 years.
  •  Repeal a provision of the new class-action rule adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in December and replace it with language requiring the Court of Appeals to hear appeals of orders granting or denying class-certification if they were filed within 14 days of the orders. The granting of such an appeal would stay all discovery and other proceedings, although courts could still consider any settlements reached by the parties.

The amendment would also eliminate a provision setting up rules for consumer-lawsuit lending and make several changes to the state’s rules governing electronically stored information and discovery.
Should the amendment pass in both committee and in the full Assembly, it would replace the original version of AB 773.

Responding to Born’s proposals, Rep. Ron Tusler, a Republican and personal-injury lawyer from Harrison, proposed eliminating certain provisions from the amendment, including one that would make some of the new discovery rules effective only in cases that are filed after July 1. Tusler also proposed eliminating a provision that would relieve parties in litigation of their duty to preserve certain types of electronically stored information “unless a court order shows that the requesting party has a substantial need” for it.

Tusler, with Rep. Cody Horlacher, a Republican personal-injury lawyer from Mukwonago, had offered up their own proposal to revise the bill last month. Among other things, that proposal would have left out the language involving class-actions and the statute of repose.

At a meeting of the Judicial Council on Friday, state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine, said part of the difficulty in getting the bill passed has been that some of the council’s work has not been taken into account.

“The only reason this bill has not gone through to the full Legislature is because of the council,” said Wangaard, who is a member of the council. “I have been adamant that this is not going to happen if you’re going to sweep aside the work of the council …”


About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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