Politics, greed bottom line of tort reform debate

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 23, 2002

It has been a frustrating 15 days say legislators as theystruggle with the issues surrounding civil justice reform, alsoknown as tort reform. It has been an even more frustrating 15 daysfor the taxpayers as they watch the political games being playedwhile the costs of the session continue to grow – now approaching$500,000.

Lawmakers took a break Thursday afternoon from the negotiationsand conferees plan to return this afternoon to resume negotiations.The full legislature returns on Monday.

Even if you have been following the special session every day,the whole situation is confusing to say the least. So let me see ifI can make some sense what is going on in Jackson.

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There are two major sticking points at this point — caps onnon-economic damages and joint and several liability. Both sidesagree on a $500,000 cap with an escape clause for certain egregiouscircumstances, but they disagree on the amount of the escape clause- the House wants $2 million and the Senate wants $1 million.

As for joint and several liability, the Senate wants to limitthe liability and the House wants nothing to change in the currentlaw. What is J and S? Well, it is the allocation of financialresponsibility for multiple defendants.

To be more specific, under current law, if a defendant is foundonly 1 percent guilty in a lawsuit the defendant can be foundresponsible for up to 50 percent of the judgment. The Senate wantsto stop the reallocation. The House wants to keep it.

The purpose of J and S is to allow a trial lawyer to go afterthe deepest pocket in a lawsuit.

There are other issues that separate the conference committee,such as a statute of limitations for nursing homes, a mediationboard, general products liability and use of expert witnesses.

The bottom line of all this, of course, is politics and greed –the trial lawyers vs. the business and medical community.

Trial lawyers have made suing a cottage industry in the stateand have found areas in the state where juries will find for theplaintiff with little regard for facts. It has become kind of aRobin Hood situation where juries take from the rich and give tothe poor.

However, trial lawyers in reality are more like the Sheriff ofNottingham. While saying they are looking out for the good of thecommon man, it is the trial lawyers that rake in 40 percent plusexpenses of a judgment while the poor innocent victim is left withwhat is left.

The reality is that the trial lawyers have made millions uponmillions of dollars on the backs of the innocent victims they saythey are trying to protect.

Meanwhile, businesses and the medical community are beingvilified. But the real victim is the public as consumer and medicalprices increase to cover the cost of litigation. For Mississippi,it is a critical that has now stalled in the special session.

As the clock keeps ticking, taxpayers are picking up the $33,000per day tab.