Auto group pushes tort reform in state

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, January 22, 2002

As Mississippi’s reputation as a “trial lawyers’ haven” grows,citizens need to be aware of the trickle down effects if tortreform legislation is not passed, says a Brookhaven automobiledealer who is president of a state trade organization.

“Every citizen needs to be concerned about the absence of tortreform in Mississippi,” said Gene Simmons Jr., owner of HomesteadAuto Sales and president of the Mississippi Independent AutomobileDealers Association.

While the term may be unfamiliar to many people, Simmons saidtort reform involves placing caps on monetary damages that can beawarded to a person for a particular reason. A variety of billsaddressing tort reform issues have been introduced during the 2002legislative session.

Simmons, whose organization represents about 1,700 dealers inthe state, said he was not against compensating people who havebeen legitimately wronged or injured. However, the $100 millionverdicts that are becoming more common in the state areunjustifiable, he said.

“Everybody’s sorry it happened to you, but you can’t expect theworld out of it,” Simmons said.

Simmons cited statistics showing that before 1995, the state’slargest punitive damage award was $8 million. Since then, at leastsix verdicts have exceeded $100 million.

“Is that the kind of thing we want to be known for?” Simmonsasked.

Simmons said the high verdicts have a trickle down effect thatresults in higher prices on products that people buy. The vastmajority of people affected by those higher prices are workingclass citizen who live paycheck to paycheck, he said.

“That’s what the people need to understand,” Simmons said.

As an example, Simmons took a can of smokeless tobacco from hispocket. Prior to the state’s lawsuit settlement against the tobaccoindustry, Simmons said the can cost around $1.99. It is now over $4a can.

“A few people are going to get something, and everybody else isgoing to pay for it,” Simmons said about the impact of big juryverdicts.

Regarding his industry, Simmons said it is second to the gamingindustry in economic impact on the state.

Simmons said there are 25-30 companies that lend money forautomobile financing. Those companies are watching this year’slegislative session closely and, because of lawsuit fears, couldstop offering their services in the state if tort reform is notpassed, he said.

A lack of tort reform was also cited as a hindrance to economicdevelopment efforts. The state’s legal climate is keeping somecompanies away, said Simmons, who also mentioned physicians’concerns about malpractice insurance coverage availability.

“Until they feel safe, and that they won’t lose everything theyown, they’re not coming here,” said Simmons, adding that he wassurprised Nissan located in the state.

Simmons blasted attorneys who come to Mississippi to file alawsuit in hopes of making their “life income off of one deal.” Hesaid attorneys are fighting tort reform measures because it wouldcut off their chance to be on “Easy Street.”

Simmons said most of the attorneys seeking the big settlementsare from out of state and not local.

“I’m proud of the lawyers in Brookhaven,” Simmons said. “They’renot out looking for the ambulance-chasing high road.”

Attorney Bobby Moak, who represents House District 53 in thestate legislature, offered a different viewpoint of the situationsurrounding the call for tort reform.

Earlier this year, Moak said there were two full days ofhearings on tort reform by both the House and Senate insurancecommittees. While also citing jury awards, he said major insurancecompany representatives expressed concerns about higherre-insurance costs, paying out claims and the economic impact ofthe Sept. 11 tragedies.

Citing that testimony, Moak said costs of insurance would notdecrease if tort reform measures were passed. The representativeindicated that kind of response casts doubts on tort reformchances.

“There may be something there, but their answers are going tohave to get better than that,” Moak said.

Moak also questioned the perceived impact of tort reformpassage.

“It’s not going to be something that solve all ills and solveall problems,” said Moak, who also pointed out that large verdictsare appealed.

Moak said tort reform won’t stop juries from awarding largesettlements. Cases in Florida, California and Texas have producedlarger verdicts than cases in Mississippi, he said.

“If you look at it over the last 10 years, (the large verdicts)are consistently from states with tort reform,” Moak said.

Moak said some people seem to think juries are like “aliens fromanother planet” when they award large verdicts. While acknowledgingthe state’s reputation, he said juries aren’t composed of aliensbut neighbors and friends who share views on the legal system.

“It’s a reputation of each and every one of us,” Moak said. “Webelieve in a jury system.”