- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

Striking a blow for common sense tort reform, Mississippi legislators have passed two major pieces of legislation that could go a long way toward ending the state's reputation as a haven for frivolous lawsuits.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat generally viewed as unsupportive of reform, signed into law product-liability legislation that was passed right before Thanksgiving by a special session of the Democrat-controlled legislature. The bill will make it much harder for plaintiffs' lawyers to continue to win expensive jury verdicts, which were making them richer while driving businesses from the state. Mr. Musgrove had already signed into law a bill, passed in early October by the legislature, to reform Mississippi's medical malpractice laws, which have been driving doctors out of the state.
Mississippi's lack of caps on punitive damages, combined with extraordinarily liberal laws allowing lawyers to shop around for the most plaintiff-friendly trial venues, were driving business from the state. In May, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned companies against doing business in Mississippi.
In rural, impoverished Jefferson County, which has become a veritable Mecca for personal-injury lawyers, less than half of the people who serve on juries have finished high school. Yet, these jurors are required to decide some of the most complex medical and scientific issues of our time including the health effects of asbestos products, prescription drugs and lead paint.
"It doesn't matter if the FDA says a drug is safe. The FDA looks at the benefit and looks at the potential deaths and says, 'the benefit is more than the harm,' Wyatt Emmerich, a Jackson newspaper publisher and columnist, told "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer. But the lawyers go to Jefferson County and talk about the deaths. "And then you say, 'Can you believe these people died? It's time to send a message that they can't kill Mississippians,' " Mr. Emmerich said. "The next thing you know, some pharmaceutical company owes $500 million in punitive damages. If a phamaceutical company can be sued for a billion dollars down in Jefferson County, they're not going to produce the drug because the cost is too high."
On Nov. 26, two days after this program aired, the Mississippi legislature passed a package of reforms, including a $20 million cap on punitive damages for the largest firms. It also includes reforms of the system of joint liability for noneconomic damages, in which a defendant responsible for a small percentage of damages is required to pay a much larger share because the other defendants have gone out of business.
Mississippi has taken several critical steps in the right direction on tort reform, which will strengthen its economy in the long run. Other states would be wise to pay attention.


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