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Lawmakers and tort reform

By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
June 16, 2002
If you believe a specially-appointed legislative committee will agree on proposals to change the state's much-maligned civil justice system, you could be in for a long wait.
A quick look at the 26 House and Senate members serving on the joint committee a majority of whom are attorneys raises the question whether the panel will accomplish anything at all.
Even comments last week from two committee members, Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, and Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, point to the extreme divide that separates many lawmakers over the issue.
Robertson, who practices commercial and real estate law, said he wants "to see a total restructure of the civil justice system." Blackmon, a trial lawyer, said drastic changes are unnecessary.
Caught in the middle are doctors who are having trouble renewing malpractice coverage because insurance companies have raised rates or simply have refused to write policies.
Some doctors have even abandoned their profession, saying the threat of high-priced, multimillion dollar jury awards in possible malpractice suits could wipe them out financially.
When Mississippi lawmakers began the regular 2002 legislative session in January, some observers had hoped the state House and Senate would consider changes to the civil justice system.
Suggested changes in the issue known as "tort reform" could have included a limit on punitive damages awarded by juries a financial penalty designed to "punish" people found guilty.
That never happened. Despite that, public interest in and awareness of tort reform has steadily grown since the end of the legislative session in April.
House Speaker Tim Ford and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck appointed 13 members each from the House and Senate to a special legislative committee to study the issue.
And Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has said he plans to call a special session this summer on medical malpractice coverage and may add comprehensive tort reform if lawmakers recommend changes.
That brings us back to the special committee itself, a panel that met for the first time last week and had no immediate consensus about what should be done on tort reform.
It should come as no surprise given the fact that the panel is one of the Legislature's largest.
Only the House budget-writing Appropriations and tax-writing Ways and Means committees have more members, 33 each. And trying to find a consensus there is sometimes next to impossible.
And don't forget the makeup of the special committee. With eight attorneys each from the House and the Senate, the committee is top-heavy with people who would seem most likely to oppose any changes.
Unanswered questions remain, such as whether a 33-member special committee loaded with attorneys can agree on proposals in time for Musgrove's promised late-summer special session.
And whether, based on Robertson's and Blackmon's comments alone, the committee sincerely plans to study tort reform or is simply going through the motions.