When a miniature train derailed in a public park in Spartanburg County last year -- killing a child and injuring 28 others -- state law said the victims could split no more than $600,000 to help pay their medical bills.
Today, state senators will discuss a bill that would raise that cap on awards that government agencies and non-profit groups can be ordered to pay, meaning victims of future accidents would have more money to help pay their bills.
“If (privately operated) Carowinds had owned that train and exactly the same thing happened in Carowinds, the sky would be the limit,” said state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, the bill’s primary sponsor. “Why should this be limited just because it is (a local government agency)? The pain and the suffering and the medical bills are the same.”
But raising the cap would mean already cash-strapped local governments would have to pay higher insurance premiums.
“Any increase in insurance premiums goes back down to the taxpayers in the form of raised taxes or cuts in services or both,” said Josh Rhodes, an attorney with the S.C. Association of Counties.
Other non-profit organizations also would be affected, including charitable hospitals. That means Peeler’s bill has a lot of opposition -- so much that the bill would die on the Senate floor, said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled to discuss the bill today.
So Martin is proposing a compromise: leave the caps alone but give local government agencies the option to set up assistance funds to help pay the medical expenses of victims injured on public property. Raising the caps on lawsuit awards would not help the victims of Spartanburg’s Cleveland Park train derailment because it could not be done retroactively. But giving Spartanburg County the authority to set up a fund to help pay for medical expenses could help the victims now, Martin says.
“In light of the fact that the business community weighed in ... I’m going to encourage the (full) committee to go with the fund in an effort to get the bill moving through the process to get those folks some hope of getting some assistance,” Martin said.
But that’s not enough, said Tom Killoren, an attorney whose law firm represents three families in the Cleveland Park case. All of the victims are children. Killoren said one of his clients has a head injury; the other two have been in the hospital for weeks at a time. Killoren said one family’s medical bills alone exceed the $600,000 that the 29 affected families are supposed to share.
“What if one city decides to set up a fund and (another) one doesn’t?” he said, noting the bill would not require government agencies and non-profits to set up victim-relief funds -- it just would allow them to do so if they choose.
Trial lawyers say Martin’s proposal is impractical.
They argue that paying slightly higher insurance premiums over time would be smarter than paying a larger sum when a tragedy happens. “It’s much more budget friendly,” said Randy Hood, president of the S.C. Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers.
Peeler’s bill proposes raising the cap -- or limit -- on awards by a small amount every year, depending on the rise of inflation. Local governments says that poses a problem for them because they need to know how much insurance to buy.
“It creates a moving target for how much insurance you need,” said Rhodes, the attorney with the Association of Counties. “Right now, you don’t know what the inflation for this year will be. You’re not going to know what adequate coverage you will need.”
The Senate committee meets at 3 p.m. today.