Session stall disappoints lawmakers

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Lincoln County lawmakers prepared for a short day Wednesday asthe legislature was expected to recess until October, when a tortreform compromise is expected to be reached.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett was expecting about a 10-minutesession Wednesday, the 16th day for most lawmakers. Otherlawmakers, such as House and Senate conferees, have been at worklonger.

Shortly after arriving, lawmakers were sent home until Oct. 7.Six conferees, three from the House and three from the Senate, willcontinue to work on a tort reform proposal.

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Tort reform efforts have stalled as House and Senate confereeshave been unable to reach agreement on a bill.

“It is a sad day for the state when we can’t get this done,”said Barnett this morning as he drove to the Capitol for thismorning’s session.

Barnett has sat in on some conference work, fielding somequestions about drugs and other medical-related issues. Heindicated that a compromise has appeared close at times during thenegotiations.

“Every day, I thought it would be the last day, but that was 16days ago,” Barnett said.

The session began Sept. 5 and, through Tuesday, had costtaxpayers $567,215.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith agreed with the decision to endthe session until a compromise can be reached.

“At this point, that’s probably what we need to do,” Hyde-Smithsaid. “There’s no point in all of us being there spendingtaxpayers’ money.”

The senator also cited some lawmakers’ concerns about theapproaching Tropical Storm Isidore.

“The Gulf Coast delegation is very anxious about the stormthat’s moving in,” Hyde-Smith said.

While lawmakers were getting a break, Hyde-Smith remainedhopeful that a tort reform solution could be found.

“Hopefully, we haven’t thrown in the towel. This issue needs tobe addressed,” Hyde-Smith said.

Barnett, Hyde-Smith and Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak offereddiffering opinions on the cause of the delay.

“It appears the House leadership does not want tort reform,”Barnett said, referring to no bill being brought to the chamber fora vote. “It’s a sad situation for the state of Mississippi.”

Barnett speculated a bill would get more than 100 votes.

“Even if it is not a perfect bill, it would be better than whatwe have,” Barnett said.

Moak said the situation was frustrating.

“It’s just one of those issues that lobbyists on all sides ofthe issue have taken control of,” Moak said. “It’s bad to say, butit certainly appears that way.”

During conference work, Moak said the House had moved toward theSenate position on many issues, such as a $1 million “hard cap” onpain and suffering injury awards.

However, a major sticking point appears to involve productliability lawsuits. Moak said the House language would allow claimsin state courts while Senate language would federalize theissue.

“You have to wonder why the Senate is protecting largecorporations that way…,” Moak said. “I’m not willing to give upMississippians’ rights to file claims in state courts.”

Hyde-Smith, though, said the House language could produceunintended circumstances involving sellers of products other thatmedicines. She said it needed more specific language to determineintent.

“It included every seller,” Hyde-Smith said, including anexample of a homeowner being held liable for a malfunctioning lawnmower sold at a garage sale. “I just think that language is toobroad to be put in a malpractice bill.”

The senator indicated the issue was not about preventingcitizens from seeking legal relief.

“No one is trying to prevent anyone from having access to thecourts,” Hyde-Smith said. “We just want to do the right thing.”

Responding to leadership questions, Moak said the Houseleadership pushed conferees toward the Senate language. Now, theSenate won’t accept and was even trying to “crawfish” to get alower “hard cap” on injury awards.

“There seems to be a breakdown,” Moak said. “You’ve just got toanalyze the facts.”

Moak acknowledged the possibility of a tort reform billpassing.

“There is a movement for something to pass, but we want to havea good work product when we bring it out there,” Moak said.

Hyde-Smith said lawmakers will not have accomplished anything ifthe bill doesn’t give relief to doctors needing medical malpracticeinsurance coverage. She added that insurance companies are not freeof fault in the tort reform debate.

“They, too, are taking advantage of this situation,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Hyde-Smith expressed concerns about doctors leaving or quittingthe profession because of their inability to get malpracticecoverage or get it at a reasonable rate. She said one goal shouldbe to create a potential competitive market for medical malpracticeinsurance providers.

“We have to have physicians to have health care provided to allcommunities,” Hyde-Smith said.

Mentioning conversations with doctors in her district,Hyde-Smith said it would be better to walk away than have a billwith as many loopholes as the one on the table currently.

“I learned long ago it’s just as important to kill a bad bill asit is to pass a good one,” Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith said she was proud of Senate conferees and work beingdone. She said tort reform is not easy issue to resolve andlawmakers knew that going into the session.

“It’s something you can’t put on the back burner,” Hyde-Smithsaid. “We’ll just have to work through it.”