Public looks to House for real tort reform
By By Chip Reno / guest columnist
April 12, 2004
Mississippi shows many signs of moving away from its reputation as a dumping ground for questionable lawsuits and moving toward a better climate for bringing jobs into our state. Most notably, during the last two state wide election years, the public spoke overwhelmingly at the ballot box in favor of tort reform as state wide candidates who ran on tort reform planks won easy elections.
Most recently, a little-noticed state Supreme Court ruling a few weeks ago marked the beginning of this process.
On Feb. 19, the court's ruling in the Armond Case said that joining together massive numbers of lawsuits into a single mass case may not make sense. This was more than just another Supreme Court decision, however. This position marked a sea change for the Mississippi courts' view of this "joinder" or mass lawsuit process.
This ruling becomes the court's policy on how massive cases can or more appropriately cannot be handled in our state. But, to remove any doubt that a single court case can represent new court policy, the court issued new rules the next day addressing its concerns about mass lawsuits.
The spotlight then shifted to the Mississippi Senate, where under the leadership of Gov. Barbour, Lt. Gov. Tuck and Sen. Charlie Ross sweeping legislative reforms were passed in Senate Bill 2763.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary A committee, under personal injury lawyer Ed Blackmon's leadership, took SB 2763 and gutted it of all the meaningful tort reform provisions that were earlier passed by the Senate and, instead, substituted language that would even attempt to go around the Supreme Court's recent reform decision.
Rep. Blackmon's twisted version of the bill in the House would once again allow the amassing of plaintiffs from across the state and even from across the nation into single massive lawsuits. It also creates new Mississippi law for another form of mass lawsuit called a "class action," which heretofore hasn't been allowed under Mississippi law.
So, to get this straight, Rep. Ed Blackmon and the House Judiciary A committee, has decided that what they call tort reform should consist of passing new laws that would actually create more frivolous lawsuits, not fewer.
Not a good thing
No one in the business or medical community is dumb enough to think that passing a law to make more frivolous lawsuits is a good thing, or that such a law should be called tort reform. In fact, creating more lawsuits flies in the face of the issues that the overwhelming majority of Mississippi voters demand to see enacted.
However, it should be noted that there is a bill still alive that does provide for meaningful and real tort reform, which would truly curb the number of frivolous lawsuits in Mississippi.
House Bill 1323, which was amended in the Senate committee last week by Tuck, Ross and company, to include the substantial reforms that Rep. Blackmon and company deleted. Most expect that HB 1323 will be passed by the full Senate this week, and then travel back to the House for re-consideration.
In the House, the substantial reform measures, which are now included in HB 1323, will pass or fail based on the decision of the House Speaker, Rep. Billy McCoy.
If Speaker McCoy chooses to recognize Chairman Danny Guice, whose prerogative it is move HB 1323 on the House floor, then substantial tort reform will receive a "yes" vote and finally pass our Legislature to be sent to Governor Barbour for his signature into law.
But, if Speaker McCoy chooses to ignore Chairman Guice's request for recognition on the House floor, then no real tort reform will pass this legislative session, and you can expect a long, drawn out special session on the issue of tort reform with the accompanying pressure from the public and the press to pass the measures then.
What is clear is that real tort reform is inevitable. It would be best, and less costly for the taxpayer, to pass it into law by voting for HB 1323. Call your representative in the Mississippi House and tell them to demand a vote on HB 1323 and for real tort reform.
Chip Reno is executive director of STOP Lawsuit Abuse in Mississippi, a grassroots advocacy group for lawsuit reform based in Jackson.