Changes on Hill bode ill for trial lawyers

Tort laws likely to be overhauled

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The nation’s trial lawyer bar, one corner of corporate America firmly in the Democratic Party base, will soon be addressing a far less sympathetic jury on Capitol Hill.

Republicans poised to take control of the U.S. House and state governments across the country next month are sending clear messages that an overhaul of the nation’s tort and liability laws is a top priority, forcing trial lawyers to find ways to preserve a legal system that has allowed lucrative liability and class-action lawsuits to flourish.

The American Association for Justice (AAJ), the powerful lobby formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, is warning its members of tough times ahead.

“Opponents of the tort system have gained more power in the new Congress,” AAJ officials wrote in a recent alert to members. “This new clout means all of our issues will be under attack. Denying rights to the innocent victims of medical negligence is certain to be the first order of business when the 112th Congress convenes.”

Corporate lobbies and business interests of all stripes are scrambling to adjust to November’s political revolution, which gave the GOP control of the House, an expanded minority in the Senate, and gains in governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the country.

A look at corporate giving patterns reveals the extent of the trial lawyers’ ties to the Democratic Party.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the AAJ was by far the top contributor to political campaigns among legal industry interests in the 2009-10 cycle, with 97 percent of its $2.56 million in campaign cash going to Democrats. The AAJ also spent almost $3 million on lobbying in 2010 - more than three times the amount spent by the next biggest legal interest, the American Bar Association.

One big change for the trial lawyers will be the power shift in Congress. While Democrats retain control of the White House and the Senate, several strong Republican critics of the nation’s tort system will be in positions of authority.

Among the new GOP power brokers is Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a strong believer that liability lawsuits are major contributors to escalating health care costs.

Mr. Smith is making tort reform one of his top five priorities, after failing last year to get approval of GOP-backed legislation that supporters say would have saved Americans an estimated $54 billion in medical malpractice lawsuit damages. Republicans pushed to attach tort reform to President Obama’s signature health care legislation, only to be repulsed by the Democratic majority.

“I continue to support such reform,” said Mr. Smith, who will model his efforts after those in Texas and other states. An overhaul of the nation’s tort law system would “help American families struggling with health care costs and protect medical personnel who are overburdened by the high cost of malpractice insurance.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, in line to be the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also is expected to pursue tort reform.

Mr. Grassley, who easily won election to a sixth term in November, has led numerous oversight investigations and helped pass the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 - a major Bush administration law designed to make it more difficult to bring class-action lawsuits in “plaintiff-friendly” state courts.

In the votes for passage, all but one House Republican supported the measure, while all of the 26 dissenting votes in the Senate were cast by Democrats.

A Grassley staffer said the senator is focused on tax issues in the lame-duck session of Congress and has yet to lay out an agenda for the coming year, but tort reform “obviously has been an interest of his.”

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