In 1986, the legislature passed the most regressive “tort reform” bill in the country. The bill contained many clauses, but the biggest component was a cap on damages applicable to all tort claims, with the equation:
(0.43) x (Average annual wage in the State of Washington as determined by statute) x (Life expectancy as determined by the life expectancy tables adopted by the Insurance Commissioner.)
Today at the Amicus Foundation luncheon, Paul Stritmatter spoke about the bill and the cases that fought it. He noted we don’t know where the 0.43 number came from.
The case that fought it was Sofie v. Fibreboard. The facts were:
- Austin Sofie was a pipefitter by trade.
- He was exposed constantly to asbestos products.
- He contracted mesothelioma.
- He was 67 years old.
- At trial, testimony was presented about the extreme pain he experienced and his constant need for “morphine cocktails” and hot baths to lessen his consuming physical agony. Although alive, he was unable to attend the trial.
- The jury awarded $477,200 for his non-economic damages.
- The jury awarded his wife, Marcia, $677,392 for her loss of consortium.
- The Judge, at request of counsel, made a specific finding that the jury awards were reasonable and within the evidence presented.
- The judge then ruled he was compelled by the Tort Reform Act to reduce the total award for both Austin and Marcia Sofie to a total sum of $125,136.45 for non-economic damages.
- The Sofies appealed.
The WSAJ (then WSTLA) Amicus team worked to show the damage the Act caused the Sofies and that it was unconstitutional.
The legal arguments were all constitutional arguments based on:
- Violation of the Right to Trial by Jury;
- Violation of the Right to Equal Protection;
- A taking without Due Process of Law;
The Amicus briefs also argued:
- Violation of Separation of Powers; and
- Violation of Privileges and Immunities.
The remarkable Justice Utter, who just passed away the other week, wrote the opinion for the court. The prevailing argument was the violation of the right to trial by jury.
The Sofies were overjoyed. The following was the front page of the Seattle Times the next day:
WSAJ members will be able to read Paul’s full remarks in the December Trial News.