Illinois Bill Aims to Allow Punitive Damages With No Limits
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Illinois legislators are fast-tracking a bill adding pain and suffering damages without limits to wrongful death lawsuits in a last-minute move backed by a small group of trial lawyers, despite dozens of business opponents, including truckers.
“It is politics in Illinois. It is an end-of-session bill and these are things that pop up the final week of session,” Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association, told Transport Topics, adding “we have been told to expect it to pass and be sent to the governor before we adjourn in the next few days.”
House Bill 219 was introduced Jan. 12 in the 103rd General Assembly by attorney Rep. Emanuel (Chris) Welch (D) and described as amending the Uniform Interstate Depositions and Discovery Act and making a technical change in a section concerning the short title.
Dormant in a House Rules Committee since March 27, HB 219 was resurrected May 11 when its sponsorship changed to civil attorney Rep. Jay Hoffman (D), who tacked on the punitive damage amendment May 15 followed by other last-minute changes.
Since then, the Democratic-backed legislation has steamrolled through the House, picking up 15 co-sponsors (including seven lawyers). It received House support from five advocates, including representatives from the Illinois Trial Lawyers, state bar association and Citizen Action Illinois.
The bill amends the Wrongful Death Act enabling civil litigants to receive punitive (pain and suffering) damages except in cases against the state or local governments and their employees acting in official capacities. It also changes the Probate Act of 1975 allowing punitive damages for people who survive. Another clause disallows punitive damages in lawsuits involving “healing art malpractice or legal malpractice.”
After passing in the House (75 to 40), the bill moved to the Senate in a Democrat-backed effort led by attorney Sen. Don Harmon, along with five cosponsors.
“There’s dozens of business organizations who are opposed to it,” Hart said. “It’s unfortunate that this bill isn’t going to be given the opportunity to have robust debate in the House and in the Senate. It’s not going to have the chance for everyone to weigh in.”
Declaring a commitment to continue to fight the legislation, Hart said his coalition will urge Gov. J.B. Pritzker to veto the bill if it lands on his desk. “We are going to be asking people to reach out to the governor’s office. In the trucking industry, our businesses have wheels on them. It [this type of legislation] makes it harder and harder to keep businesses like the trucking industry in Illinois.”
Illinois Trucking Association numbered among 37 opponents along with UPS, the Mid-West Truckers Association, National Federation of Independent Business, Illinois Fuel & Retail Association, the state Association of Chiefs of Police, the state Retail Merchants Association, Johnson & Johnson, three chambers of commerce, Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, Associated Builders and Contractors of Illinois, Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers and more than a dozen insurance companies.
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Brooke Kelley, assistant vice president of state government relations in Illinois for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, issued a joint statement with the Illinois Insurance Association.
“Passage of the bill would make Illinois an extreme outlier state in terms of allowable damages for wrongful death cases, as almost all states that do allow for punitive damages also ‘cap’ or otherwise limit both punitive and noneconomic damages in some way, which Illinois does not,” the declaration noted.
It contends such a new law would likely increase claims, litigation, jury verdicts and settlement costs to the detriment of the state’s defendants in civil lawsuits, consumers, businesses, health care providers and insurers.
A “Tort Costs in America” report issued in November by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce placed the total national tort cost figure at $443 billion in 2020, of which $3,590 is paid per Illinois household.
“By adding punitive damages to wrongful death cases, Illinois will witness skyrocketing costs, scaring away potential job creators faster than a coyote in a chicken coop,” noted the American Tort Reform Foundation, a unit of a nonprofit founded in 1997 to focus on the impacts of civil tort law on the public and business sectors. “What makes this amendment even more bewildering is its arbitrariness. While it aims to punish defendants for certain behavior, they conveniently exempt state and local governments, as well as medical malpractice cases.”
It dubbed the Illinois legislative maneuvering “outrageous” with the potential to “wreak havoc on businesses and further tarnish the state’s already infamous reputation as a Judicial Hellhole.” Its annual list of Judicial Hellholes ranked Cook County, Ill., in fifth place, citing it as a hub for legal advertising spending and haven for nuclear verdicts of $10 million and more in personal injury and wrongful death cases.