(INDIANAPOLIS) - The Indiana Senate has endorsed a bill that would require judges to penalize plaintiffs found to have filed frivolous lawsuits against livestock farms.
The Senate voted 36-14 last week in favor of the bill that would change current law giving judges discretion on whether to order anyone filing a frivolous lawsuit or offering a frivolous defense to pay attorney fees to the other side.
Supporters of that change say judges are often reluctant to order such penalties.
Environmentalists argue that such a change will have a "chilling effect" on those with legitimate complaints against sprawling, factory-style livestock farms. They say Indiana already has a strong law protecting the property rights of farmers.
The House and Senate still must agree on a final version of the bill in conference committee.
The bill has the support of state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, who amended the proposal in committee.
"I modified it so that it was more fair to all parties," Steele said. "The way the bill was drafted, it did not provide room for the court to make a determination of whether a suit was frivolous and in fact it basically read if you lost the suit you were frivolous and that is not the case."
So Steele's amendment requires that a judge would have to make finding of whether a lawsuit was frivolous before someone would be required to pay all legal fees.
"If the court found that you brought your lawsuit and maintained it in a frivolous way or if you were sued and continued to defend when there was no defense, then these things could subject you to attorney fees for the other side," Steele said. "I went on to provide in the bill it was attorney fees for only one lawyer, not a whole bank of lawyers, and the hourly rate had to be the average normal hourly rate customarily charged in the county where the lawsuit was filed and not some fee for a Boston or Chicago lawyer."
Steele is no stranger to farm-related bills at the Statehouse.
He is garnering support among Hoosiers to back his "constitutional right to farm bill" which will be heard for the second session next term.
"If it is successful, it will go to the general public on the ballot," Steele said.
Senate Joint Resolution 9 seeks to ensure the right to hunt and fish and "engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry or dairy products."
Steele, whose District 44 includes much of Jackson County, has said the proposal brings together two constituencies - hunters and farmers - that see themselves as under attack by animal-rights activists.
Senate Bill 179, which would require every high school student beginning with the class of 2017 to complete an online course before graduation, has raised some concern. High schools are wondering where they will find the online curriculum to offer and how they will find the funding to develop it if that is needed.
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