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Bill to lift civil damages cap fails in Senate

Republicans had offered a counterproposal: triple the cap to $1.5 million and have it increase automatically with inflation.

DFDFD DD - fddfdf dAs the legislative session speeds toward sine die, not every bill being brought to the floor has the votes to pass.

A bill pushed by Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, to create children's service districts failed by a wide margin on the House floor on Wednesday. The day before that, the Senate voted down a higher-profile proposal backed by a powerful Democratic constituency: trial lawyers.

The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association has been calling for the Legislature to act ever since the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages in a 2016 decision, overturning a precedent it set with a different decision in 1999. Trial lawyers favor lifting the cap entirely, arguing that artificially limiting the amount a plaintiff can be awarded to compensate them for pain and suffering is unfair.

House Bill 2014 breezed through the House earlier this legislative session, but it was always believed to face a sterner test in the Senate. Four Democrats broke with their party to vote against the bill on Tuesday, with all Republicans also voting against it, including Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, a co-sponsor.

Republicans had offered a counterproposal: triple the cap to $1.5 million and have it increase automatically with inflation.

"It is a true effort to fix something that some would say is long overdue," said Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, unsuccessfully trying to convince colleagues to support the Republican version of the bill instead.

Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, put her skills as a litigator to use with an impassioned speech in support of HB 2014. She argued that by restoring the ability for juries to decide, without fetters, how much a plaintiff should receive for their pain and suffering, the bill respected the intent of the Seventh Amendment and upheld the values of limited government.

"In a word, juries are incorruptible," Fagan said. She quoted Portland attorney Greg Kafoury, who once described a jury as having "the power of a thunderbolt, and the lifespan of a gnat."

Neither speech was enough, as neither version of the bill was agreed to. Citing the concerns of medical professionals and small business-owners, several moderate senators — including Sens. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend — said they believe there should be no non-economic cap in some cases but were not willing to do away with the cap in all cases.

Monnes Anderson and the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, said after the vote that they want to keep working on the issue, in hopes of finding a solution that senators who support reform but believe HB 2014 went too far can support. The soonest that would happen is likely next year's short session.

"I would love to see a compromise," said Monnes Anderson, a retired nurse. "I would love to see something."

Boquist said by sponsoring the bill, he hoped to further a bipartisan discussion. Although Fagan's floor speech was "exceptionally good," he acknowledged, he didn't feel like Democrats made a serious effort to accommodate Republicans' concerns — on HB 2014 and on other proposals, including bills Boquist offered up that never advanced out of committee, as well as Democrats' leviathan cap-and-trade bill, which has been progressing toward a House vote.

"This is a case where it's systematic across the board," Boquist said.

Boquist and Betsy Imholt, chief of staff to Senate President Peter Courtney, said the 14-15 vote didn't come as a surprise. The bill is considered dead this session.