MADISON, Wis. – Business groups and some Republicans are declaring a litigation crisis in Wisconsin after the state's top court issued a series of rulings they fear will make the state ripe for an onslaught of liability lawsuits.
A group called FreedomWorks is planning a $2 million campaign to push for legislation to overturn some of the decisions and to educate voters on what it calls one justice's "votes in support of frivolous lawsuits."
Wisconsin implemented a series of laws in the mid-1990s in an attempt to limit jury awards in malpractice and liability cases, but the state Supreme Court last month threw out caps on medical malpractice (search) awards for things like pain and suffering in a 4-3 decision.
The following day, the court cleared the way for a Milwaukee teen to sue several manufacturers of a lead paint pigment he claims made the teen mentally retarded, even though he cannot prove if any of them made the pigment in the paint that may have sickened him.
Earlier this year, the court lowered the requirements that plaintiffs must satisfy to receive punitive damages, awards meant to punish a defendant's actions.
"Every CEO and top executive in America is now reading that Wisconsin is a dangerous place to operate a business because you're getting sued out of business," said Jim Pugh, spokesman for the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. "That's why it's such a big deal."
The head of the state's trial lawyers, though, said the concerns are overblown. "The Supreme Court said there was no rational basis and no evidence to support caps as a remedy to those problems," said Dave Skoglind, president of the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Health care and business officials said the $350,000 cap lawmakers put into place a decade ago helped keep down insurance premiums for Wisconsin doctors -- savings passed onto patients -- and created access and quality superior to other states.
A legislative committee will study medical malpractice laws in response to the court's decision. Bills addressing the other court decisions are being discussed and some have suggested that constitutional amendments are needed to limit the court's ability to review some liability laws.
Gov. Jim Doyle (search), a Democrat, has not said whether he supports those efforts.
Groups opposed to the court decisions are also focusing their efforts on Justice Patrick Crooks, who ruled with the majority in all three cases.
Shortly after the decisions were released, Crooks announced he would seek another 10-year term. Several potential opponents have indicated they may run against him, but none has jumped in the race for sure so far.
Cameron Sholty, the state director of FreedomWorks, said the $2 million campaign is a target and it was too early to tell how much could be spent during next year's Supreme Court race.
FreedomWorks is led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican.