September 6th, 2017

New York Attempts Real Tort Reform

When I use this blog to write about tort reform, it’s often with scare quotes around the reform. Because reform means to improve something, not destroy it. When that phrase is commonly used, however, it’s used in conjunction with finding ways to close the courthouse doors to those who’ve been injured or wronged.

But that doesn’t mean that real tort reform isn’t taking place. Just this past year we saw three bills pass the New York Legislature by wide bipartisan margins, all currently awaiting the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

  1.  A subtle change in mandatory supplemental insurance if you are hit by an uninsured or underinsured vehicle that is likely to have a very dramatic positive effect for most drivers that carry more than the minimum insurance;
  2. A “date of discovery” rule for medical malpractice cases, so that the statute of limitations starts to run in cancer cases from the date the malpractice could reasonably have been discovered, not from the actual date of the malpractice; and
  3. A change regarding venue, so that cases can now be brought where a collision actually took place, even if none of the parties live in that county.

But there are more bills in the hopper, and by hopper I mean pending at various points in the vast legislative maze that needs to be navigated before any bill becomes law. Sam Senders, one of my readers who does structured settlements for Arcadia Settlements Group, put together a short list that he shared on LinkedIn, that you see below.

Perhaps if people started using the phrase tort reform properly it would shine a big, bold light on those that actually try to deform the civil justice system by slamming the courthouse doors closed on consumers.

Sam’s list of bills, with my editorial comments, that constitutes real tort reform:
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1:  Admissibility of an Opposing Party’s Statement:  This bill modestly changes a hearsay rule by making admissible statements made by a company’s agent or employee. This change is supported by the State Courts of Superior Jurisdiction Committee and Tort Litigation Committee.

2: Apportionment of liability:  This bill comes into effect in tort cases where one defendant has settled, so that the remaining defendants must elect prior to trial whether to reduce liability by the amount of the settlement or by the amount of the equitable share of damages delegated to the settler in the verdict. Currently, the law is that a non-settling defendant gets a setoff from a settling defendant equal to the greater of the actual amount paid or the percentage of liability, with the determination made after verdict. This current practice actually acts to dissuade settlements, and that runs counter to the public policy of the state which is to encourage them.

3:  Expansion of economic and non-economic damages:  This long overdue bill adds to the types of damages that may be awarded to people for whose benefit a wrongful death action is brought, to include grief. Currently, New York is one of the few states in the nation that, by law, refuses to recognize grief as an element of damages in wrongful death cases.

4: Expansion of judgment creditor’s rights: This bill would add a new Section 1405 to the Civil Practice Law and Rules to expressly permit a plaintiff, as judgment creditor against a defendant, to recover and collect an unsatisfied judgment or portion of a judgment directly against a third-party defendant found liable for contribution or indemnification.

5:  Prohibits ex-parte interviews on personal injury and medical malpractice cases: Currently, defendants are permitted to interview a plaintiff’s treating physicians. Without a stenographer. Without the plaintiff or counsel being present or even notice being given to the plaintiff that the interview will occur. These interventions may, of course, impact treatment (many doctors want nothing do with lawyers and lawsuits) and they may also deeply affect privacy as defense lawyers may start asking questions about ailments wholly unrelated to the issues of a lawsuit. (Such as STDs, abortions, drug/alcohol issues, psychiatric treatment, etc.) This bill prohibits defense counsel from conducting such ex-parte interviews.

6:  Increases trial lawyer contingency fees on medical malpractice claims: Yeah, I know, supporting this looks very self-serving. But you know what? Ever since the Legislature dramatically cut attorney fees in medical malpractice cases in the ’80s, making them some of the lowest in the nation, many injured people can’t find lawyers. Many cases are simply too expensive and too time-consuming to warrant the risk given the crappy fees, effectively giving the medical community immunity for many acts of malpractice. This bill repeals the sliding scale fee for attorneys in medical, malpractice and brings the fees in line with other personal injury and wrongful death actions (one-third of the recovery).

There it is. Six bills. Covering real tort reform.

 

June 23rd, 2017

NY Leg Advances Change to “SUM” Legislation (Updated!)

The last two days I covered action in the New York Legislature to change the medical malpractice statute of limitations and make a modest change in where lawsuits can be brought (both of which still need the signature of the Governor).

Today, I cover a third piece of legislation, which while exceptionally important is virtually unknown to most. These posts come in a flurry because that’s how our Legislature works, passing bills  in a frenzy in the closing days of the annual January-June session.

This particular legislation refers to Supplementary Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (SUM) insurance.

Stop!!! Don’t leave!!!  Trust me, while the issue sounds boring, it could be the difference between bankruptcy or not to anyone seriously injured.

In New York, we have particularly crappy minimum levels of insurance, known as 25/50 on non-commercial vehicles. That means that, if you are injured by someone with such minimal insurance, no matter how badly, the most you can obtain from that insurance policy is $25,000. (The 50 refers to the aggregate of all claims from the collision.)

And if badly injured, you can’t work and pay your bills. Which is why bankruptcy is not uncommon amongst those victimized. Unless you protect yourself.

Unbeknownst to most folks, there may be a second policy at play — your own — if you own a car. This is the SUM insurance if the car that plowed into you and broke your back has that minimal insurance.

Now here’s the catch, and the reason I write: The default on the SUM policies is a mere 25K. So even if you are a high earner, bringing home the family bacon, and have a $500K bodily injury policy of  your own, it won’t matter if you don’t read the fine print. Because that $500K is only to protect the person that you injure. It isn’t for yourself.

Yeah, it’s in the fine print. Most don’t know about it. Even one legislator I spoke to a couple of years ago was so unaware of it that, when her child was injured, was stuck with that minimal policy. She had no idea.

And, before I get to the legislative fix, one more point. That SUM policy only comes into play if your own policy is larger than the car that hit you. So, in other words, if the car that ran the light and clobbered you had a 25K policy, and you have a 25K SUM policy, you don’t get an extra 25K, because you would only be entitled to the difference between the two.

OK, now on to the fix. The New York Senate passed a bill (S5644A) in the waning hours of the legislative session to change the default from 25K SUM insurance for yourself to be the same as the amount of bodily injury coverage you have selected to protect others.

So if you have a 500K bodily injury policy, your default would be 500K SUM. You can, of course, decline it if you want. But most people who feel the need to buy insurance at higher levels aren’t the types of people who generally would decline.

This bill passed, as had the medical malpractice bill and the venue bill, with wide bipartisan support. And by wide I mean 62 out of 63 votes.

Unfortunately, the legislature adjourned for the session as the Senate passage came too late for the Assembly to vote. It will only come to the Assembly floor if they are called back into session, a possibility given that there is a large, unresolved issue of mayoral control of NYC schools.

Otherwise, it is wait till next year.

In the meantime, if you are renewing your auto policy, look for that part about SUM coverage and make sure you get as much as you can. It is, relatively speaking, dirt cheap, which is why your broker may not even bother to mention it to you. But it can make all the difference in your life if some underinsured car clobbers you.

And one day I’ll come back to discuss our ridiculously low 25/50 auto insurance policies.

Update (6/29/17) – Gov. Cuomo called the Legislature back to Albany for a special session, to deal with the issue of mayoral schools. And any other lingering issues.

So late last night, by a vote of 104-6, the Assembly joined the Senate in passing the SUM bill. It goes now to the Governor for signature.

This is a very big deal, as all too often we see cases of people with decent insurance getting hit by cars with little insurance, and the victims then find out to their own dismay that they could have easily and cheaply covered themselves for this event, but didn’t. Now that coverage will be the default.

 

 

June 22nd, 2017

NY Legislature Amends Venue Law for Lawsuits

New York’s counties

As the New York Legislature raced to a close yesterday, I wrote about a change in the statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases.

But that wasn’t the only change that affects the personal injury field. There was also a change as to where lawsuits can be brought.

Currently, a lawsuit can generally be brought either in the county where the plaintiff resides, or the county where the defendant resides. Thus, if someone from Manhattan and someone from Suffolk were involved in an auto collision in Nassau — which sits between the two for you non-local readers — the plaintiff could choose either Manhattan or Suffolk as the venue for the lawsuit. But not the county in between where it actually happened.

But late yesterday both the Senate and the Assembly passed a bill to amend that to include also the place where that collision took place, adding the words in all caps to CPLR 501(a):

Except where otherwise prescribed by law, the place of trial shall be in the county in which one of the parties resided when it was commenced; THE COUNTY IN WHICH A SUBSTANTIAL PART OF THE EVENTS OR OMISSIONS GIVING RISE TO THE CLAIM OCCURRED; or, if none of the parties then resided in the state, in any county designated by the plaintiff. A party resident in more than one county shall be deemed a resident of each such county.


While this provides a bit more flexibility for the individual that chooses the forum, the practical application is that one may now bring suit where important eye witnesses are most likely located, thereby increasing the chance one will be able to get them into court for trial.

A good tool for the lawyer’s toolbox. The bill passed with very wide bipartisan support and now goes to the Governor for signature.

 

June 21st, 2017

NY Senate Passes “Lavern’s Law” — A Date of Discovery Law for Cancer Cases (Updated!)

A month ago I posted about New York’s need to pass “Lavern’s Law,” which extends the date of discovery in medical malpractice cases from the time the discovery of malpractice was made, or could reasonably have been made.

The problem, as I noted back then, was that some folks lost their rights due to our short statute of limitations — 2 ½ years for most cases and a mere 15 months against a municipality — before they even knew they had an undiagnosed cancer or other condition.

The Assembly had, in prior years, passed the bill. The obstruction was in the Senate.

A couple hours ago, though, the Senate passed the bill. Or at least a version of the bill.

While the original version related to discovering malpractice in general, the Senate version is restricted to undiagnosed cancers and other malignant tumors.

This is a victory for consumers no doubt, in that some of them won’t have the courthouse doors slammed in their faces before even being aware they had any rights to begin with.

The law is named for Lavern Wilkinson, who went to Kings County Hospital on February 2, 2010 with chest pain. A radiologist saw a suspicious mass on the x-ray. But Wilkinson wasn’t told.

When it was found again two years later when her complaints worsened, the 15-month statute of limitations had expired. As per the Daily News summary of the incident:

A chest X-ray found the cancer had spread to both lungs, her liver, brain and spine. The disease was now terminal.

She left behind family including an autistic daughter.

The bill had bipartisan support, and passed the Senate by a vote of 55 to 6.

Reconciliation with the Assembly is next, and assuming that happens, on to the Governor for signature.

The extension of the statute of limitations is not forever, of course. It starts to run from the date of discovery, and the time to start suit will end seven years later, even if the cancer is not discovered.

This is all very good for New York’s residents. Should they fall victim to malpractice, they have to worry less about being victimized a second time by an unjust civil justice system.

Updated: The Assembly has now passed the same bill. It goes to the Governor for signature.  He had previously been a supporter of the law.