- Policy Resources
- News & Analysis
- Your State
Nathan Newman on March 31, 2006 - 1:32pm
From the Sun Sentinel:
The Florida Senate gave final approval Thursday to a measure toppling a centuries-old principle of civil law that will make it harder for people to collect damages when they're injured in an accident.This change allows businesses to harm others, yet escape most responsibility for paying damages by palming off blame on others. The new law will eliminate the principle of "joint and several liability", the principle that when a company negligently injures a person, they are responsible for the harm they cause, regardless of whether others also contributed to the harm. The traditional idea has been that the first priority is to make whole the victim. After that the various wrong-doers often go to court to apportion the costs among themselves, but that relative apportionment of blame was irrelevant to whether the victim was made whole. The new approach under Florida law is being sold as "fairly" assigning liability, but as Public Citizen outlines in this policy brief, it's all rhetorical sleight-of-hand:
Basic tort law ensures that a defendant will only be held liable if his or her tortious behavior was the actual and proximate cause of the entire injury (i.e., the plaintiffs injury would not have occurred but for the defendant's conduct and the defendant's conduct is not too remote or minimal). An individual defendant's responsibility does not decrease just because another wrongdoer was also an actual and proximate cause of the injury. Instead, each defendant who actually and proximately caused the plaintiff's injury is fully responsible for the entirety of the plaintiff's damage. Therefore, imposing the full measure of that damage on an individual defendant is not unfair, as they have already been found to be fully responsible for the harm.Metaphorically, what the Florida law says is that if two people both participate in a robbery where your child is shot in the head, you can sue either one for only a portion of the injuries caused even if the other one is dead or unavailable to pay their share of the damages. The more common real-life equivalent are companies that negligently poison the water or air. Under traditional doctrines of joint and several liability, as Public Citizen details, "members of the community injured by these emissions can sue and collect the entire sum of damages from the corporate wrongdoers without proving the exact proportion of damage each corporation caused." It was then up to the companies to sue each other to apportion blame and, if some of the companies go bankrupt and can't pay their share, that was a problem for the other guilty parties, not for the injured plaintiffs. But under Florida's new approach, it's the guilty who will escape liability and the injured who will be left holding an empty bag when other wrong-doers declare bankruptcy. Update: In the same week, Governor Edward Rendell vetoed a similiar bill in Pennsylvania to limit joint and several liability in that state.