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franklin county times

Compromise civil justice bill passes

By Staff
from staff and wire reports
Nov. 26, 2002
JACKSON  While neither side expressed total satisfaction, business interests seemed generally pleased and the trial lawyers lobby seemed disappointed late Monday as state lawmakers adopted compromise civil justice reforms.
The compromise allows plaintiffs to use state courts to pursue damage cases and also contains a measure of protection for small businesses in product liability cases.
The House voted 108 to 12 and the Senate voted 43 to 6. The bill was held on a procedural motion in the House, which could bring it up for more debate today. If no changes are made, the bill goes to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
The compromise bill caps punitive damages in product liability cases against businesses and corporations, restricts where lawsuits can be filed, punishes people for frivolous lawsuits and prevents out-of-state residents from being joined in lawsuits with Mississippi residents.
The Senate and the House compromised on the "innocent seller" provision that had them at an impasse for the last few days. The language is designed to protect business owners sued for selling defective products they did not design or manufacture.
The new language is modeled after a Missouri statute that lawmakers say protects small business owners and allows plaintiffs to file suits in state court, instead of federal court, where it is more difficult to recover damages.
Currently, for example, a hardware store owner can be sued along with the manufacturer of a product, even if the store owner had no role in creating the alleged defect. Under the provision, local sellers could get an early determination from a judge on whether they will be included in a lawsuit.
The innocent seller issue was addressed by creating a procedure to protect retailers who sell products that are faulty through no fault of the retailer.
Watson said he believed it is important to keep Mississippi plaintiffs in state courts.
Business groups have been pushing for restrictions on damage lawsuits. The limitations, they have said, would cut insurance costs, attorney fees and other expenses of doing business in Mississippi.
Trial lawyers and consumer groups oppose limitations they say would strip injured individuals of their right to sue.
The compromise provides for a cap on punitive damages, which are used to punish a defendant for wrongdoing or to deter future conduct. The cap is based on a company's net worth but damages could not exceed $20 million for larger companies.
For businesses worth less than $50 million, the damage limit would be 4 percent of a company's net worth.
The compromise also limits a property owner's liability and how multiple defendants will be held liable.
It's my sincere hope that it will prove to be in the best interests of the people of Mississippi,'' said Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, the only conferee who did not sign the conference report.
It took lawmakers a month to settle on a bill to protect medical providers from some malpractice claims. The House and Senate have been debating general civil justice reform since Oct. 8.
Also Monday, the House and Senate passed an appropriations bill of $1.6 million to pay for the special session.

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