Lawsuit liability bill goes to governor

The New Hampshire House, after a tough floor fight, sent a bill to the governor overturning a recent state Supreme Court decision on apportioning liability in a civil suit.

The bill, opposed by business groups and municipalities, would prevent defendants from bringing others in for liability purposes, other than those named by the plaintiffs.

Supporters of the measure said it would prevent the “empty chair” defense, meaning that defendants could “lay low” and afterwards bring in people who can’t really defend themselves in order to lower the amount of their own damages.

Those who opposed legislation said that it would allow plaintiffs to pick and choose defendants with “deep pockets” — those with insurance, or large corporations and municipalities – even when they are only minimally responsible.

The Senate previously amended the bill to mollify critics, only allowing those who had “substantial” liability to be on the hook, and then passed it last week on a 12-11 vote back to the House.

But the term substantial is “very subjective,” said Rep. William Infantine, R-Manchester. “In a large case with many factors, it could result in a quagmire.”

Supporters pointed to the language of the law that said the defendant wouldn’t have any liability if the “plaintiff’s harm would not have occurred but for the party’s fault.”

“Let’s blow away the smoke that is swirling around this bill,” said Rep. Betty Lasky, D-Nashua. “It means that a person can determine for himself who he would like to sue, and he won’t have to sue everybody and his uncle.”

The House beat back an attempt to table the bill and then passed it, 182-153. Now it’s up to Governor Lynch.

In other action, lawmakers sent to the governor for his signature:

• A bill allowing high-tech businesses and manufacturers to apply for state-guaranteed loans for intellectual property development of up to $250,000
• A bill requiring developers to apply for a permit for shoreline development, similar to that governing wetlands. Permit cost would be $100 plus a dime for every square foot of the development, with various caps depending on the size of the project, with a cost ceiling of $3,750.
• A bill creating a state subsidy of $2.1 million for dairy farmers. The money will come out of the general fund and not a 2.5-cent-per-gallon milk tax that had been previously proposed.
• A bill that bans the disposal of mercury-containing products, like thermostats, in landfills.
• A bill to create a New Hampshire rail transit authority, with broad powers to hasten the development of commuter rail in the state.
• A bill that would speed up the approval process for those seeking to build renewable energy facilities, particularly in the North Country. The law doesn’t allow regulated utilities to get in on the action if they pass the risk onto the ratepayers.
• A bill giving convenience stores a greater piece of the action on lottery sales, with more incentives to increase sales.
• A bill imposing fines of $2,500 plus $100 per worker on employers that don’t carry workers’ compensation insurance. And a “person with control or responsibility over decisions to disburse funds” can be also be fined personally. Those on construction sites now must truthfully certify they have coverage, or face similar fines.
• A bill requiring group health plans to cover divorced spouses for up to three years.
• A bill allowing pharmacists to participate in a discount drug program for the uninsured, similar to the one offered to Medicaid recipients.
• A bill prohibiting health-care facilities from requiring nurses to work overtime. Nurses can agree to do so, but they can revoke that agreement as long as they give a two-week notice. – BOB SANDERS

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