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Tort measures having mixed success

Conservative Republicans who dominate the Legislature say the timing is right to overhaul Arizona’s civil justice system, arguing the changes are needed to improve the state’s business climate.

But so far, their success has been mixed.

Of the two most-significant tort reform measures introduced this session, one has advanced, while the other has stalled.

The proposals have been pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of corporate interests and GOP lawmakers that promote conservative policy.

In Arizona, they’re supported by business groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Arizona Manufacturers Council, who argue that lowering businesses’ and manufacturers’ liability will help attract new companies to the state.

But the movement has been opposed by trial lawyers’ organizations that argue it would hurt people who have been injured, and their objections have been enough to sway some Republicans.

One change the business community has been pushing is for the state to adopt a “modified comparative fault system” – meaning that a judge or jury could bar a party from collecting damages when they are more than 51 percent at fault.

HB2545 would have established that system, which sponsor Rep. Ted Vogt said would be a fairer way to award damages in civil suits.

“The idea is, if you’re the majority at fault, why are you hauling the other parties into court?” he said of his proposal.

Due to a lack of support, the bill did not receive a vote in a House committee Thursday.

Arizona operates as a strict comparative fault state, which means in a lawsuit, a person can still recover damages but the amount is reduced based on how much he or she contributed.

Marc Osborn, a lobbyist who represents the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Arizona Manufacturers Council, said the business community believes the bill will shield businesses and manufactures from frivolous lawsuits.

“I think the frustration is, if the guy was 70 to 80 percent at fault, I wouldn’t be in this situation if the individual hadn’t operated in a reckless manner,” he said.

But Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Carefree, an attorney, said the current system is the fairest way to determine how much an injured party is due.

“Why should someone who is 49 percent at fault, almost half as negligent, be able to walk off free?” he said.

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