On Mississippi's business climate
May 12, 2002
There's nothing like a rash of negative publicity to scare politicians into action. On the issue of civil justice reform in Mississippi, the negative press has been coming in waves. And it's way past time for our elected officials to take corrective action.
In an unprecedented and highly publicized move, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week splashed a much-needed shot of cold water on Mississippi's lawsuit-friendly business climate. Due to what it called excessive jury verdicts in civil cases and the reluctance of our officials to do anything about changing the system that produces them, the U.S. Chamber encouraged Mississippians to force their officials particularly legislators into action.
This debate, now national in scope, is far greater than a nasty dispute between rich lawyers and rich doctors. Tort reform goes to the very heart of how our state can attract new businesses and help existing businesses expand. When a business is sued frivolously because someone thinks it has deep pockets, the expensive and exhausting process doesn't only affect the business' owners; it can severely punish vast numbers of employees and suppliers whose jobs depend on that business' success.
The U.S. Chamber, the nation's 90-year-old business advocate, knows that unwarranted legal assaults are expensive and time-consuming and can kill a business, taking employees down with it. Multi-million-dollar damage awards have become the norm in Mississippi, a gold mine for trial lawyers and a nightmare for most businesspeople whose insurance rates and legal costs skyrocket.
On the face of it, the legislative study committee announced by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Tim Ford is not a bad idea. We won't presume to guess what "corrective" measures they may come up with, but, at the outset, let us say we already doubt the value of any work product produced by trial lawyers and some of the same old faces who've kept civil justice reform off the front burner.
The issue is now front and center. Our elected officials should deal with it in convincing manner that encourages economic development and job creation. Sensitive projects are in the works, projects that if they reach reality can jumpstart Mississippi's stagnant economy and provide real jobs at good wages long into the future.
So, the next time you read a story about civil justice reform and are tempted to yawn or divert your eyes, think again. Think about how it could affect you, your job, your family's livelihood, your quality of life, your children's future. What would happen if your employer had to spend so much money on legal defense that it laid off employees? What would happen if your employer's insurance rates increased so much that it could no longer compete? Think about how many fewer dollars you could have to buy food and gas and contribute to churches and charities. Think about opportunities lost.
The real message in all this is that our Legislature, whose key committees are dominated by lawyers, our governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker have all failed to protect us the public from the threat, and reality, of frivolous legal action.
The responsibility to fix it now falls to them and we welcome the U.S. Chamber's rather abrupt reminder that we, the people, have the power to make our voices heard.