Tort reform bills on the move in Legislature
A package of tort reform bills moving through the Alabama Legislature would provide a boost to the state’s economy and level the playing field for small businesses, according to the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, of which the Federation is a member
The House of Representatives is expected to give final consideration to four tort reform bills Wednesday that passed the House Judiciary Committee this week.
SB 184, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, is known as the Alabama Small Business Protection Act. The bill would protect Alabama retailers from product liability lawsuits aimed at manufacturers. Alabama retailers often are named as defendants in lawsuits regarding products they neither designed nor manufactured. This allows plaintiffs to file suit in counties with favorable courts or keep an out-of-state manufacturer in an Alabama state court. HB 251, sponsored by Rep. Wes Long, R-Guntersville, is the companion bill.
SB 207, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would change the rate of interest on judgments in Alabama from 12 percent to 7.5 percent. Under current law, if a defendant loses a lawsuit and chooses to appeal, he must begin paying 12 percent post-judgment interest on the amount the court or jury awarded the plaintiff, creating a significant financial deterrent to appealing an unjust verdict. The bill would bring Alabama’s interest rate more in line with other Southeastern states. HB 236, sponsored by Rep. Greg Canfield, R-Vestavia Hills, is the companion bill.
SB 212, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, would prohibit “forum shopping” of wrongful death actions by requiring that a suit can be brought only in the county where the decedent could have filed suit. This will prevent the current practice of finding a personal representative in a plaintiff-favorable county solely for purposes of changing the venue. HB 228, sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, is the companion bill.
SB 187, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, would establish a framework for admitting scientific expert testimony in order to preclude introduction of “junk science” into courtrooms. The bill uses a three-part test already being used in federal courts. HB 239, sponsored by Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, is the companion bill.
Senate committee passes coastal insurance bills
Four bills related to coastal insurance passed the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee April 21 after three of them were voted down by the same committee earlier that morning.
Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, who sponsored the bills, told the Mobile Press-Register that coastal lawmakers met with Senate Banking and Insurance Committee Chairman Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, following the morning committee hearing. Later that afternoon, the Rules Committee recommitted identical bills with different numbers to Blackwell’s committee, where they passed by a 7-1 vote.
SB 400 would establish a catastrophic savings account to cover insurance deductibles and other uninsured losses on residential property caused by a windstorm. The bill also would allow taxpayers to deduct deposits into the account on their state income tax returns. SB 395 would provide a state income tax deduction of up to $1,500 for homeowners who retrofit their homes in order to prevent hurricane or windstorm damage. SB 396 would provide insurance premium tax credits to private homeowner insurance carriers who write homeowner wind coverage in areas covered by the Alabama Insurance Underwriting Association.
A fourth bill passed the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee during the morning hearing. SB 7, also by Sen. Brooks, would require insurance companies to notify policyholders of discounts and other policy savings available for improvements to withstand windstorm damage.
On Wednesday of this week, the Senate passed a fifth bill that would establish the Strengthen Alabama Home Program. The program could receive grant money, as well as potential oil spill fines, and then use the money to aid homeowners seeking to retrofit their homes. SB 389 is sponsored by Sen. Brooks. The companion bill, HB 507 by Rep. James Buskey, D-Mobile, passed the House Insurance Committee on April 21.
Gov. Robert Bentley has created a commission to study coastal insurance issues and has promised to call a special legislative session on the topic later this year. The Federation and Alfa Insurance favor a market-driven approach that increases competition among insurers in the coastal counties and that encourages property owners to mitigate risk by adopting stronger building standards.
Legislation would protect Alabama honeybee colonies
Legislation that passed the House and Senate agriculture committees this week would protect Alabama honeybee colonies from pests and disease by increasing fines for illegally transporting honeybees across state lines.
HB 552, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday. The companion bill, SB 433 by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, also passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee Wednesday.
The legislation would establish a fine of $100 per hive for honeybee colonies brought into Alabama without a certificate of inspection from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. It also authorizes the Department to destroy hives that violate the law if they are not moved within seven days of the owner being notified. In addition, it allows rewards for information related to the movement of illegal hives into the state.
The bills exempt honeybee colonies moved into the state under a compliance agreement with the Department for the sole purpose of pollination.
Honeybee producers in the North and Midwest often overwinter their bees in Texas and Florida. When these colonies are moved, some bees are left behind, bringing diseases, viruses and pests with them from other states.
According to Dennis Barclift of the Department of Agriculture, Alabama’s restrictions on the transportation of honeybee colonies has been effective in protecting Alabama hives. For instance, when mites hit the U.S. honeybee industry in the 1980s, it was five years before Alabama colonies were infected. By that time, more effective treatment options had been developed.
Barclift said the penalty portion of the bill will entice more beekeepers to report instances of bees moving into Alabama. The Department of Agriculture has two bee inspectors for the entire state, so it relies on beekeepers and other individuals to report these movements, said Barclift.
Alabama’s 2,500 beekeepers produce more than 780,000 pounds of honey a year.
Bills in Brief
Forever Wild Reauthorization, SB 140 AND HB 126, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, and Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, would allocate up to $15 million a year for the next 20 years for the acquisition and maintenance of land in the Forever Wild program. The program is funded by interest from the oil and gas trust fund. HB 126 was amended on the House floor to discourage the Forever Wild board from purchasing farm land or leasing property. The bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week and was placed on the Senate calendar for a final vote. SB 140 awaits action in the Senate. AFF supports creation of a legislative committee to study Forever Wild and make recommendations for its future.
Forever Wild Proration, SB 369, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, proposes an amendment to the constitution providing that, in years when the General Fund is in proration, the investment income of the Forever Wild Trust Fund would be deposited into the General Fund. The measure also would terminate the Forever Wild Trust on Oct. 1, 2032, unless an amendment reauthorizing the program is approved in the 2030 general election. The bill passed the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee on Wednesday. AFF monitoring.
Mini Trucks, SB 253 and HB 210, sponsored by Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, and Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom, would establish a license plate category for mini-trucks and exempt such vehicles from certain title requirements. SB 253 passed the House Tuesday and now goes to the governor for his signature. AFF supports.
Landowner Liability, SB 84 AND HB 551, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, and Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, would limit the liability of landowners who lease property for hunting and fishing. SB 84 passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday and now goes to the full House for a final vote. HB 551 will be considered by the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee next week. AFF supports.
Agritourism Signage, SB 153 and HB 188, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Elwyn Thomas, R-Oneonta, would give the Department of Agriculture and Industries authority to approve roadside signage for agritourism operations. HB 188 passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee Wednesday. SB 153 also awaits action by the full Senate. AFF supports.
Immigration Reform, HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would create specific crimes related to illegal aliens and would require verification of the legal status by employers. HB 56 passed the Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee Thursday. It now goes to the full Senate for final consideration. SB 256, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, also includes extensive immigration reforms but uses other identification rather than an electronic system to verify the legal status of workers. The bill passed the Senate April 21. AFF opposes HB 56 as written.
Article-By-Article (Banking), SB 28 AND HB 20, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, and Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, would revise the banking section of Alabama’s constitution without the need for a costly convention. HB 20 passed the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee Thursday and now heads to the full Senate for a final vote. SB 28 awaits action in the Senate. AFF supports.
Article-by-article (railroads), HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, would rewrite the article of the constitution dealing with railroads and canals. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday and now heads to the full Senate for a final vote. Similar bills, SB 23, SB 29 and SB 128, have been introduced by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, Brooks and Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, respectively. SB 128 has passed the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee and awaits action in the Senate. AFF supports.
Job Creation Incentive, HB 230, sponsored by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, would provide small businesses an income tax credit of $1,000 for each new job created paying more than $10 per hour beginning with the Jan. 1, 2011, tax year. The bill is known as the “Alabama Full Employment Act of 2011.” The bill passed the Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee Thursday. It now heads to the full Senate for a final vote. AFF supports.
Timber Harvest, SB 376 AND HB 487, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Mark Tuggle, R-Alexander City, would allow for county commissions to adopt a uniform notice requirement for timber harvesters prior to operations. The intent is to prevent more counties from passing varying requirements across the state. The bills have been assigned to their respective agriculture committees. AFF supports.