State Senate passes two bills to rein in frivolous lawsuits

The state Senate on Wednesday passed two bills to rein in frivolous lawsuits, with bipartisan support for both.

SB 1157, sponsored by Sen. Vince Leach, R-SaddleBrooke, would curb a trial lawyer strategy of suing several parties in personal injury lawsuits related to asbestos exposure, even if those potential defendants’ connection to an injury was negligible. 

“This is a commonsense bill,” Leach said when the bill was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We have a problem in this particular area where over-naming in a lawsuit creates more liability.” 

Mark Behrens, who testified in the committee on behalf of the United States Chamber of Commerce, said asbestos litigation over the last several decades has devolved into an endless search for a solvent bystander. 

Behrens said the bill “simply requires the plaintiff to disclose upfront, the who, what, why, and where of their injury.” 

The legislation would accelerate the disclosure of information and make sure that innocent companies are not named erroneously or frivolously, which currently leads to a dismissal rate of more than 90% during the discovery period of the lawsuit. Of the companies dismissed from the suits, nearly all of them were not found to have any connection to the damages or injuries claimed by the plaintiff. 

The erroneously identified companies, however, must cover without reimbursement the cost of defense counsel during the early stages of litigation before they are dismissed. 

In one example cited by Behrens, Marine One, a steel company named in more than 182,000 different personal injury asbestos suits, was sued in cases they never should have been named in. While their product was never found to have harmed people, they were forced to file for bankruptcy due to the cost of defense attorneys. 

The bill passed the Senate 18-12.

The Senate on Wednesday also passed SB 1092, another bill by Leach, that places limits on product liability lawsuits brought against product sellers who find themselves the target of product liability lawsuits despite not having made any alterations to a product or doing anything else that could have caused an injury to the plaintiff.

“SB 1092 would protect retailers and other businesses from unfair product liability lawsuits while maintaining the right of the consumer to sue other parties in a product’s chain of distribution,” said Chad Heinrich, Arizona state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the bill’s supporters. “The current law in Arizona places the burden of product liability at the doorstep of the retail business owner. This is unfair since most issues with products should be addressed through the manufacturer of the product, not the store owner who sold the product. SB 1092 would protect sellers of a product from the unfair financial burden of expensive attorney’s fees and the time required for litigation—simply to prove their lack of liability.”

The bill passed the Senate 17-12.

Leach said the state’s legal environment is important to its overall economic development prospects.

“I am proud to sponsor these two bills to promote a better legal environment in Arizona, which will only help our state attract jobs,” Leach said. “When trial lawyers bring bogus lawsuits, it’s job creators who pay the price by spending more time and money on defending themselves than on running their business.”

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the state’s leading advocate for reforms to the civil justice system, applauded Leach and the Senate votes.

“Sen. Leach and the senators from both parties who supported these bills have our sincere thanks,” Chamber spokesperson Annie Vogt said. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen several bills introduced this session that encourage litigation against employers, which the plaintiffs’ bar would be happy to see become law. Thankfully, Sen. Leach continues to stand up for job creators.”

Both bills now head to the House of Representatives.

Stephen Matter

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