Ohio's Latest Tort Reform
On January 6, 2005, Governor Taft approved the most recent version
of Am. Sub. SB 80. The new law will become effective April 6, 2005
and made several significant changes to existing statutory provisions.
The highlights of Ohio’s newest “tort reform” include
1. The new law establishes a ten-year statute of repose for product
liability claims and improvement to real property claims in wrongful
2. A manufacturer is immune from punitive damages if it complies
with governmental safety and performance regulations as they relate
to the alleged defense.
3. With some limited exceptions, non-economic damages are “capped” as
follows: $250,000.00 per plaintiff, or three times the economic loss
up to $350,000.00 per plaintiff, or the per plaintiff amount can further
be limited by overall occurrence limit of $500,000.00.
4. The new law
also establishes caps as it relates to the issue of punitive damages.
Under the new law, a court cannot enter judgment for punitive damages
that exceed two times the plaintiff’s
compensatory damages. Further, if the defendant is a small employer
or individual, the judgment for punitive damages shall be the lesser
of two times the amount of compensatory damages, or ten percent of
the individual’s or employer’s net worth when the alleged
tort was committed.
5. The new law also addressed the issue of seat belts and now provides
that if a driver or front seat passenger is not wearing their seat
belt, it shall not be considered or used by the jury as evidence
of negligence or contributory negligence. However, a jury may determine
that non-use of a seat belt “contributed to the harm alleged” and
may “diminish” the plaintiff’s non-economic compensation.
6. The new law also provides that a trial court shall instruct
a jury regarding the extent to which compensatory or punitive damages
are or are not taxable under federal or state income tax laws.
7. Finally, portions of the new bill immunize food manufacturers,
sellers or suppliers from obesity lawsuits and also establish limits
on liability for successor corporations in cases involving asbestos
The legislative intent accompanying the legislation confirms that
there was a perception by the legislature that non-economic damage
awards were somehow being confused by juries with punitive damage
awards. Apparently, as a result of considerable lobbying on the part
of pro-business groups, the legislature had a concern that pain and
suffering awards, which by nature are subjective, were being inflated,
and that these allegedly inflated damage awards created an improper
resolution of civil justice claims. This in turn increased the cost
of litigation, which resulted in higher insurance premiums for business
owners, which were in turn passed on to the general public through
higher prices for products and services.
It should be noted that hearings were held in connection with the
issues related to Amended S.B. 80. The legislative findings allegedly
justifying Amended S.B. 80 were contradicted by the legislative history,
and the Chairman of the group contacted the Ohio Department of Insurance,
Common Pleas judges, the Ohio Supreme Court, business groups and
others requesting data supporting the notion that there were runaway
juries in Ohio. The responses indicated there was no such data or
no such problem. Further, every empirical study of punitive damages
demonstrated that there was no state-wide damage crisis in Ohio.
What’s the practical effect for the injured plaintiff? The new
law is just the latest effort for special interest groups in Ohio to
impose caps on jury verdicts in direct contravention to the Ohio Constitution
which establishes the right to a jury trial as a fundamental constitutional
right. Unless or until injured claimants, workers and others similarly
situated organize and respond politically, this is just the first step
of the further erosion of one’s ability to be properly compensated
by the legal process for injuries one suffers as a result of the wrong-doing
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