When I wrote about the Staab III case before, I ended by writing that the hope of injured persons to be fairly compensated for their injuries from those at fault was in the hands of the Supreme Court. In this recent decision, construing provisions of Minnesota’s joint and several liability statute, the majority has now dashed that hope. Joint and several liability is basically over in cases where actions by defendants result in fault assignments of 50% or less (unless those defendants are found to act in concert.) This decision could well mean that more “tort reform” battles will return to the Legislature, in an effort to correct the change occasioned by this latest Staab decision.
As you can tell from reading my prior post, and may assume from my practice as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, this was not an outcome I welcomed. A couple of the points I addressed in my prior post were never really addressed by the majority in its opinion supporting this result. I repeat those points now, because I think they help illustrate why issues raised by this case may come back to the Legislature.
As I noted in my prior post on this case, a ruling that Subdivision 2 of the statute, which provides for reallocation of damages when a defendant’s portion is uncollectible, only applies to “joint and several liability” cases, would render that Subdivision totally meaningless. What point is there to a “reallocation” scheme that is restricted to situations in which there is already “joint” liability “for the whole award”? Interestingly, the majority opinion totally ignored this paradox and issued a decision doing precisely that.
In my original post I discussed how Subdivision 2 can indeed be applied to both “joint” and “severally liable” defendants under Subdivision 1, and still not “completely eviscerate” the reforms of joint and several liability as was argued by defense counsel. The two subdivisions can work side by side and still leave intact a fundamentally changed the tort law environment, rather than a “completely eviscerated” reform. I refer you to that post if you would like a refresher. The majority opinion, however, simply adopts the “completely eviscerate” argument advanced by defense counsel and repeats the line as a conclusion (though without explaining how that conclusion is true.)
I think the outcome of this case was driven by the majority’s apparent belief that all recent amendments to this statute are really only meant to be about shielding defendants from liability. By assuming that this is the only remaining purpose of the statute, the majority opinion suggests this is a basis to question the meaning of the words of Subdivision 2. They conclude that the apparent meaning of the language of Subdivision 2, since it serves to mitigate their presumed purpose of the statute (i.e. to shield minority fault defendants from liability no matter the circumstance), must have a different meaning than the one that appears on its face. Concluding there are two “reasonable’ interpretations of Subdivision 2, they conclude it is “ambiguous”. As we all recall from first year of law school, finding “ambiguity” in a statute is the first step to permit a court to stray from application of the words of the statute.
Although I have reservations about the wisdom of the Legislature much of the time, the idea that the provisions of this statute were only about sheltering minority defendants may be incorrect. No doubt the advocates of tort reform desired the most radical revision of joint and several liability possible. This would serve their perceived economic interest. But the legislative process often yields results that are the product of a give and take of competing positions and interests. This statute was no exception. The subdivisions of this law provided a check and balance on each other. Under the Court’s reinterpretation of this statute, balance may have been lost. The Court has reshaped our tort law so that a totally blameless injured person is at substantial risk of bearing much or all of the burden of the injury.
This is a dramatic result, reached with little or no reference to actual words in the contested provision of the statute itself, and one which requires us to basically ignore that provision. For injured persons, this is definitely change. But the hope I wrote about before, is now gone. Unless the Legislature restores some of that balance one day. If so, perhaps the advocates of “reform” have gone too far for their own good.