Arkansas justices say voters won't consider liability limits

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' Supreme Court says voters cannot consider whether to impose award limits in medical liability cases because the language to be placed on the ballot doesn't fully describe what the proposal would do.

A unanimous court Thursday directed that no votes be counted on the proposal, which would have allowed legislators to cap non-economic damages against health care providers for medical injuries at a minimum of $250,000.

Two lawsuits were filed against the proposal. Justices ruled in both of them Thursday.

Supporters of the proposal had argued that the limits were needed to control health care costs.

[DOCUMENT: Read the court's full opinion]

Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote in the court opinion that the proposed amendment was “deficient because it leaves ‘critical’ terms undefined.”

“Specifically, the petitioners assert that ‘non-economic damages’ is one of the critical terms,” Hart said. “Accordingly, [Wilson v. Martin] controls, and we grant the petition to enjoin the secretary of state from counting or certifying ballots cast for the amendment.”

The measure had been placed on the ballot by petition. A special master appointed by the court raised questions about the signature-gathering process, but justices said the term "non-economic damages" was not clear.

Petitioners had argued that the initiative provided an insufficient ballot title because it contained incorrect statements, included “partisan coloring” with respect to attorney fees, omitted mention of the Legislature being granted "ability to further define and expand" the reach of the fee and damages limitation and misled on the reach of the fee limit.

Governor Asa Hutchinson said in a news conference Thursday he was “neutral” on the tort reform ballot initiative, but that “there is always some disappointment whenever the people don’t have the opportunity to vote on it.”

“But it teaches you the importance of getting it right, both in terms of the signatures and about being informative to the voters,” Hutchinson added.

The court on Thursday also disqualified a proposal to legalize casinos in three counties from the November ballot.

Check back for updates and read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.