(WSYM) — Sponsors of a new proposal just passed in the Michigan Senate say they’re working to improve the state’s judicial system, specifically, in civil court jury verdicts where a judge disagrees.
“I think the judge just didn’t like the fact the jury awarded the plaintiff zero dollars, and sided for my client at the time, GM,” said Thomas Branigan, an attorney who represented automaker General Motors.
For more than 30 years, Branigan has take on some of the biggest civil cases in America. In one case in particular, he was hired by GM to defend the automaker in a major lawsuit filed by a vehicle owner.
“Allegation of product liability involving a seat belt. He was ejected during a rollover and seriously injured. We prevailed convincing a jury that he wasn’t even wearing a seat belt,” said Branigan.
Branigan's experience of convincing a jury didn't sit well with a judge in the case, who advocated for another trial and set aside the original verdict. In Michigan, stats show the cost to taxpayers for a new trial can run about $1,500 - $2,000 a day, and verdicts are set aside 50 or more times a year.
Now Senate Bill 408 is aiming to improve the system; it's headed to the state house for a vote.
“It’s only for civil cases. It doesn’t include medical malpractice, personal injury or criminal cases,” said attorney Nabih Ayad.
Specializing in civil rights cases, Ayad has also represented a client in a civil case where a judge was at odds with a jury's verdict. Ayad and others are now part of a major billboard campaign across metro Detroit to raise awareness and advocate for such cases to get immediate review by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
“You can imagine the harm to a person who is successful after a long, hard battle that took years to come down, now they have to redo it again. Now, the way it exists, if a judge does set it aside, the Michigan Court of Appeals will not hear their arguments until the second trial is over,” said Ayad.
Republican State Senator Jim Runestad worked on the bill passed in the Senate, calling it a "common sense measure" that's received bi-partisan support.
“There’s a glitch in the law that a judge who may not have even presided over the case, gets assigned and says, 'well, for whatever reason, I’m going to overturn that jury verdict,'” said Sen. Runestad.
Yet opposition exists, Democratic State Senator Jeff Irwin voted no and says there are more important topics to tackle.
“We would divert ourselves from the most important conversations in our state. We’ve got billions of dollars in federal revenue that needs to be allocated for schools, small businesses and unemployed workers,” said Sen. Irwin.
Records we found show these types of cases fuel debate each time they pop up and can involve everyday citizens as well as large companies.
While billboards across SE Michigan highways are catching more attention, opponents insist our state's civil court system doesn't need to change.
“Seems to me we already have clear and fair rules in court rules to deal with these situations. The legislature doesn’t have to come in and short circuit it,” said Sen. Irwin.
Lawmakers say a vote is expected in the House in as soon as a few weeks.