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franklin county times

Tort reform killed by Senate panel

By Staff
From staff and wire reports
Feb. 15, 2002
JACKSON  Under the heavy political hand of a trial lawyer who chairs a key Senate committee, a business-led effort to limit damage lawsuits died Thursday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Bennie Turner, D-West Point, declined to bring up for debate a bill that would have given tort reformists a means to limit punitive damages. The bill faced a Thursday deadline.
Because the Senate didn't vote on it, the bill died. Bills for tort reform changing the state's civil justice laws died under an earlier deadline in the House.
One bill that passed the Senate last week addresses nursing home lawsuits but it cannot be amended to put limits on punitive damages.
Turner said he saw no effort by the business community or those representing trial lawyers to try to compromise.
I think both sides are pretty much entrenched and I think most legislators appreciate some spirit of compromise to try to address the difficult issues that we face. That simply wasn't present and available to us in this instance,'' Turner said.
Thursday marked a deadline for each chamber of the Mississippi Legislature to complete work on its own bills. The House and the Senate are exchanging bills for more work later in the three-month session.
Battle for public opinion
For months, opposing sides in the tort reform debate battled to sway public opinion through television, radio and newspaper advertisements and numerous news conferences at the state Capitol.
On one side were doctors, nursing home operators, manufacturers and others who say the state's volatile legal climate is driving up insurance premiums and making it impossible for them to earn a living or care properly for those in need.
On the other side were plaintiffs' attorneys who said they're still waiting for someone to produce real proof that the state's legal system is broken.
The bill that died Thursday would have allowed either party in a malpractice case involving $5 million or more in damages to request that the jury pool include people from surrounding counties. It was an attempt to address concerns that plaintiffs' lawyers were searching for cases in counties with reputations for returning large jury awards.
Backers had hoped to use the bill to limit punitive damages.
The legislative process has slammed the proverbial door in the face of the entire business and medical communities,'' said Ron Aldridge, Mississippi director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
It is extremely difficult to enact any meaningful tort reform that affects the income of personal injury trial lawyers,'' he said. The fox is guarding the hen house.''
Tuck: Compromise needed
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who frequently talked with people on both sides of the issue, said she agreed with Turner that compromise was needed by both sides.
Now, where do we go from here? It is a very sensitive issue to many across the state. Hopefully, we can have both sides to continue working on this issue so they bring forth some meaningful and fair legislation,'' Tuck said.
Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he felt the bill deserved consideration.
I think the issue was important enough that it deserves a good debate, take the votes and see what happens. Unfortunately for the people of Mississippi, that was put off for another year,'' Nunnelee said.
Aldridge said: It is not the business and medical professions that have been hurt by the Legislature's inaction, it is every Mississippian's economic and health care future.''
David Baria, a Jackson attorney and incoming president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said he was pleased lawmakers listened ignored hype'' from the proponents of tort reform.
It gives me great comfort that our system is set up with enough checks and balances that really bad stuff doesn't become law,'' Baria said.
The bill on nursing homes put limits on how long a patient can wait to sue a nursing home after an injury is discovered.
Nursing homes would be protected by the same two-year statute of limitations that now governs hospitals and physicians. Currently, patients have three years after an injury is discovered to sue a nursing home. That bill has been sent to the House.
Tort reform has made little progress in recent sessions of the Legislature, where bills have been bottled up in committees run by trial lawyers.
The debate over liability lawsuits dates back to the 1960s when state courts expanded the rights of claimants, ruling they can make a case against a defendant who sold a product that caused damage without proving the defendant was negligent or involved in intentional wrongdoing.
Business groups say this has been a windfall for trial lawyers. Trial lawyers and consumer groups argue that stories of a system out of control are overblown.
Mississippi has become well-known for multimillion-dollar jury awards. Before 1995, the state's largest punitive damage award was $8 million. In the past six years, at least seven jury verdicts have hit $100 million or more.
The bills are Senate Bill 2342 and 2654.