Driver alert: How “joint and several liability” insurance changes brewing in the PA legislature could hurt your legal rights
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on April 13th, 2011
Call your local elected officials and strongly voice your opposition to these changes
Today in Pennsylvania, you and your family are well protected if you are involved in a multi-vehicle accident, even if one of the other parties is inadequately insured.
Under current law, the full amount of damages can be sought and awarded from any of the defendants, even if one of them had a smaller part in the crash.
This is known as “joint and several liability” in Pennsylvania.
How does it work?
Let’s say that you’re sitting in your car at a traffic light, minding your own business and waiting for the light to turn green.
Suddenly a car and a tractor-trailer rig collide violently in the intersection, pushing the car into a spiral that careens into you and your vehicle waiting for the traffic light.
You have just been involved in a horrific accident that wasn’t even your fault and now the problems are only beginning.
Under Pennsylvania law today, if you are seriously injured in such a crash, your rights to recover damages don’t end if the car that smashed into your vehicle is only covered by a state minimum $15,000 liability policy. Under existing law here, you are free to also sue the operator of the tractor-trailer that was involved and be able to recover 100% of the damages from the trucking company to cover your long-term injuries and rehabilitation.
All of that is in danger of being upended, however, under proposed changes that are being bantered around the new legislature in the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives to favor insurance companies and the medical industry.
In a story yesterday in The Legal Intelligencer, the Republican-controlled state House passed a so-called “fair-share” bill by a 122-88 vote, the first step in the process to limiting joint and several liability in Pennsylvania. The bill would sharply curtail the joint and several provisions of existing law.
Supporters of the proposed changes say it’s not fair for a defendant to have to pay 100% of a damage award if they were only partially responsible – even as little as 1% responsible – for an injury crash.
But opponents of the changes argue just as passionately that those types of 1% cases are an extreme rarity.
Instead, they argue, supporters of the measure are simply looking to shrink the size of damage awards to save money for insurance companies at the expense of deserving plaintiffs who have been severely injured.
That’s what’s usually behind such efforts to curtail the rights of injured people – fat-cat insurance companies that want to line their own pockets with premiums while paying out less to injured victims.
The proposed changes, however, isn’t a slam dunk in the state Senate.
There, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County), who serves as the Judiciary Committee Chairman, is “proposing a competing bill that would simply fine-tune the existing law,” according to The Legal Intelligencer. “Greenleaf’s bill, which is similar to an amendment that the House rejected last week, would retain most of the present law but ensure that no defendant would pay more than their percentage of negligence if it was less than the plaintiff’s share,” the story said.
We’ll have to watch closely to see what happens from here on, but the stakes are clear for every driver in Pennsylvania.
If you are injured in a multi-vehicle crash here today, your chances of receiving adequate payments for your injuries and suffering are much higher if the existing joint and several liability provisions are intact.
The Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly known as the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, sharply criticized the proposed legislation in a statement earlier this week.
“Senate Bill 2, introduced by Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre County), drastically alters Pennsylvania’s long-established joint and several liability rule,” the group said. “It blocks plaintiffs from recovering the full amount of a verdict from any defendant who is less than 60% liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. This 60% threshold is the highest in the nation. If adopted, SB2 would overturn a proven doctrine that protects innocent victims of negligence.”
The bill “will have devastating consequences on innocent victims,” the group said. “It will profit insurance companies at the expense of the public by shifting responsibility for future care of victims from wrongdoers to taxpayers.”
People often don’t think about these things when they go to vote for candidates on Election Day. They don’t consider how a candidate will represent them once elected and how they will act on all types of legislation.
Sadly, we often only think about these things after we are injured and by then it’s too late.
These proposed changes will hurt anyone who is injured in such a crash in Pennsylvania in the future if the proposal isn’t stopped in its tracks.
The bill is all about the needs of insurance companies rather than deserving plaintiffs.
This will hurt accident victims who have been badly injured by thwarting their ability to recover damages from all defendants, even when one of the defendants isn’t able to pay.
That’s not fair to victims or their families. And that’s just absolutely wrong.
So what can you do to make your voices heard so that your state legislators don’t give your rights away to the insurance companies?
Call your state representatives, state senators and Gov. Tom Corbett today and give them hell about the proposed changes. Tell them that you want to the joint and several liability laws to remain as they are so that you and your family are protected in the event of severe injury in a motor vehicle crash.
Use the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s “Find Your Legislator” online tool here to find the names and contact information for elected officials in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
Here is the contact information for Gov. Tom Corbett:
225 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17120
Phone: (717) 787-2500
Fax: (717) 772-8284
E-mail the Governor’s Office