Thursday, November 3, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, November 9. The test will be transmitted over radio and television stations, satellite TV and satellite radio networks, cable TV and wireline video services.

For years state and local emergency management agencies have tested similar alert systems on a monthly basis, which warn the public of threatening weather and other emergencies. The November 9 alert will look and sound familiar to the public. For example, listeners will hear a voice stating clearly that "this is a test."

The November 9 test will be a first because of its national scale. Past tests have been at the state or local level, but there has never been a nationwide test like the one that will be conducted on November 9. According to the Federal Communications Commission, only a nationwide test will allow emergency management officials to predict how well the system will function in the event of a large scale disaster that affects numerous states, such as an earthquake or a tsunami.

Officials at the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will watch for anomalies resulting from the use of national computer codes, rather than state and local codes. They will watch the video closely, especially lettering that spells out "this is a test." Audio is supposed to be exactly the same all across the country, but the video images are expected to vary. Officials want to eliminate any problems with visual images so that the alert system is effective for people with hearing impediments who rely on captions.

The test should last about three minutes. Federal officials chose to perform the test in the middle of the afternoon on November 9 so as to minimize disruptions and confusion. The hurricane season will be at its end and the winter severe storm season will not have begun. The test will take place during most people's work hours, to avoid potential confusion during rush hour traffic.

The test will not be heard on mobile telephones or mobile communications devices.

Punitive Damages In Rice Lawsuit Under Appeal

A major feature of the Arkansas tort reform law, a limit on the amount of punitive damages that plaintiffs may be awarded in a civil suit, is under challenge before the state Supreme Court.

Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in a case in which a group of Arkansas rice farmers won punitive damages from a German corporation that allowed genetically engineered grains to contaminate the commercial rice supply. Farmers sued for damages because the contamination meant they were unable to sell their rice at regular market prices.

The Arkansas rice farmers won in Lonoke County Circuit Court and were awarded $42 million in punitive damages, in addition to $6 million in compensatory damages. The corporation has appealed and one of its arguments is that the punitive damages exceed the limits in Act 649 of 2003, the Arkansas tort reform law.

Act 649 had the support of the business community, which had long wanted tort reform to limit damages awarded in civil suits. It was opposed by trial lawyers.

The case out of Lonoke County is one of several in which rice farmers have successfully sued, or received settlements, because of the contamination of the rice supply by the German corporation.

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