The Alabama Legislature passed a package of bills affecting Alabama’s judicial system during the Regular Session that were signed into law on June 9, 2011. The bills included four so-called tort reform bills. This legislation is the first effort by the Alabama Legislature to further restrict citizens’ rights since the Legislature imposed the punitive damages cap on the people of Alabama in 1999. The most recent package included the following bills, which will be discussed briefly:
Senate Bill 59- Statute of Repose Bill
This bill reduces the statute of repose for commencing actions against architects, engineers, and builders from thirteen years to seven years after substantial completion of construction. Any action may be brought within two years of an accrual even if it extends beyond the seven year period, leaving a homeowner up to nine years to commence action. Disabilities do not toll the statute of repose beyond seven years. The legislature’s stated purposes for reducing the statute of repose are:
• to limit the liability of architects, engineers, and builders whose services end at the substantial completion of construction; and
• to reduce the burden on Alabama courts in litigating actions with scarce evidence.
Neither of the stated purposes make sense. Surely, an architect who designs a defective building has responsibility beyond the “completion dates” of the building. The bill, which takes effect September 1, 2011, will be codified at Alabama Code §§ 6-5-221, 6-5-222, 6-5-225, and 6-5-227.
Senate Bill 184- Limiting Product Liability to the Manufacturer
This bill prohibits product liability actions against retailers, wholesalers, and other distributors if they did not manufacture, exercise substantial control over, or alter the product. A consumer may bring a product liability action against a retailer, wholesaler, or other distributor if, after a good faith exercise of due diligence, the consumer cannot identify the manufacturer of the defective product. The retailer, wholesaler, or other distributor may identify the manufacturer of the defective product by filing an affidavit with its answer. The legislature’s stated purpose for this bill is “to protect distributors who are merely conduits of a product.” The bill, effective immediately, will be codified as Alabama Code §§ 6-5-501 and 6-5-521.
Senate Bill 187- Daubert Bill
This bill replaces Alabama’s Frye standard with the federal Daubert standard of admissibility for expert witness testimony in civil actions. Alabama courts have applied the Frye standard to expert witness testimony since 1923. The bill will be codified at Alabama Code § 12-21-160. The Daubert Standard will apply to actions commenced on or after January 1, 2012.
Senate Bill 207- Post-Judgment Interest Bill
This bill reduces the post-judgment interest rate from 12% to 7.5% per annum and is codified at Alabama Code § 8-8-10. The 7.5% interest rate will apply to judgments entered on or after September 1, 2011.
Senate Bill 212- Limiting Personal Jurisdiction
This bill limits personal jurisdiction for wrongful death actions to the county where the deceased could have filed the action instead of the county where the personal representative resides. The legislative purpose was said to be to reduce forum shopping by the families of persons killed resulting in wrongful death lawsuits. This bill, effective immediately, is codified at Alabama Code § 6-5-410.
Interestingly, there was no urgent cry from any segment of the public to pass any of the bills that were passed by the Legislature. Nobody to my knowledge was pushing any of them very hard. Nevertheless, the bills were passed and are now law in Alabama. At least lawyers who represent victims of corporate wrongdoing and abuse were able to discuss the bills with the sponsors before they came out of committees and had some input into the final versions that passed. That was a welcome change in how legislation that affected the civil justice system had been handled in the past.