Joint and several liability was a centuries-old section of our common law that protected victims from absorbing the costs of another’s negligence. Deceptively named the Fair Share Act, Republicans heralded the repeal of joint and several liability as an important tool in job growth. “This bill announces to the rest of the world that Pennsylvania is open for business,” Governor Tom Corbett said.
And there’s no disputing that repealing joint and several liability will make Pennsylvania more attractive to corporate interests. Without joint and several liability, their assets will be protected from judgment in our civil courts.
Joint and several liability made guilty defendants potentially liable for 100 percent of damages if their co-defendants couldn’t pay. For example, if a drunk driver hit another vehicle, which was then hit by another vehicle that was traveling too closely, both are are fault. However, if the drunk driver didn’t have insurance, the driver of the second vehicle could be held responsible for the victim’s injuries. Joint and several liability protected innocent victims from having to pay out of pocket for their own injuries.
Under the Fair Share Act, defendants are only fully accountable if it’s proved that they were at least 60 percent at fault. If they aren’t, they only have to compensate for the percent of damages they caused.
Opponents have given the Fair Share Act a far more appropriate name: “The Wrongdoers Protection Act.” Instead of protecting innocent victims, the repeal of joint and several liability will leave the injured out in the cold without legal recourse. In another example of how the new law will work, imagine a manufacturer makes a faulty airbag. A car company then installs that faulty airbag without doing proper safety screenings.
When the airbag fails to deploy and a driver is injured, a jury finds the airbag manufacturer 70 percent responsible and the car company 30 percent responsible. The manufacturer claims they don’t have the funds to pay their 70 percent, and because the car company doesn’t have to pay any more than its 30 percent share, the victim only receives that 30 percent.
What if you were that driver? Imagine you’ve lost 3 months of work ($3,000 in lost wages), been hospitalized for 30 days ($180,000), and in need of weekly physical therapy for the next year ($10,000). Without taking non-economic damages into consideration, you’re looking at costs of nearly $200,000. With the car company paying its legally required $57,900, you’re still looking at a deficit of $135,100. Does that seem fair to you? Should an innocent victim, who was injured through absolutely no fault of their own, be responsible for their own medical bills and wage losses?
Big Business may have been the big winner in the repeal of joint and several liability, but taxpayers are the ultimate losers. When you can’t afford to pay your medical bills, where do you turn? Social services. And who pays for those social services? Taxpayers. Without joint and several liability, more and more victims will be left without the compensation they deserve, our social welfare rolls will grow, and the overall tax burden will increase.
Repealing joint and several liability has made Pennsylvania a less just place to live and work. And in their misguided effort to cut costs and create jobs, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers have accomplished nothing but adding to our budget deficit.