- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the first time in its 90-year history is targeting a state for its anti-business practices, saying Mississippi has become a haven for excessive lawsuits and massive jury awards.
The chamber yesterday started an advertising campaign urging Mississippi residents to reform the state's legal system, a day after warning its 3 million members against doing business there.
"Businesses are being unjustly and unfairly targeted by a legal system that is gravely tilted toward the interests of the plaintiffs' lawyers," said Tom Donohue, the chamber's president and chief executive officer. "If Mississippi wants to attract more business, then Mississippians need to push for common-sense legal reforms now."
Proponents of tort reform have campaigned for caps on jury awards and for moving many large, multistate class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts. Mississippi has gained notoriety because of numerous suits involving tobacco and asbestos, seven of which have ended in awards of more than $100 million.
A recent poll ranked Mississippi's legal system last overall, as well as in a variety of categories. The Harris Interactive survey of more than 800 general counsels or senior litigators from corporations nationwide found Mississippi was worst in tort and contract litigation and punitive damages.
Released in January, the poll led to a push for tort reform during the state's latest legislative session. The session ended April 12 with no reforms enacted, though several bills had been considered and one was vetoed by Democrat Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
"I think everyone hoped the legislation would find a way to do something," said Jim Wootton, president of the Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. When the legislature was unsuccessful, the chamber decided it needed to act, Mr. Wootton said.
More than 20 physicians have left the state since the legislature ended this year's session without reform.
One pharmacist in Jefferson County has been sued repeatedly over various pharmaceutical-industry issues in a bid to get class-action cases tried in the state, according to the American Tort Reform Association.
One insurance company has canceled the pharmacist's policy, and another has raised her rates by $1,000 a year.
The chamber's moves mark the second time this week a national organization has targeted Mississippi. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on Monday named Mississippi one of nine "hot states" with a liability-insurance problem that threatens the availability of doctors to deliver babies.
Politicians from Mississippi acknowledged yesterday a need for some changes in state laws, but some said the chamber was unfairly targeting the state.
"This action is outrageous, inappropriate and irresponsible," said John Sewell, spokesman for Mr. Musgrove. "Basically, what they're doing is political blackmail."
Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, said he spoke with Chamber President Tom Donohue yesterday and was told his state was being used as an example of several jurisdictions that have become bad for business due to excessive lawsuits.
Alamaba, Louisiana, West Virginia and Texas were also ranked in the Harris Poll among the worst states with regard to tort and contract litigation and punitive damages.
"He assured me they weren't really trying to single out Mississippi, but illustrate how bad lawsuits against businesses have become," Mr. Cochran said. "It should have been made more obvious that this was an example, but I think they are trying to help."
The chamber is spending $100,000 to run newspaper ads in Mississippi that urge residents to call on lawmakers to change the legal system.
The chamber has made no statements regarding any states other than Mississippi and has not announced plans for advertising campaigns outside the state.
Business owners in Mississippi say they hope the chamber's involvement leads to some reform.
"All they're saying is what we've been saying for the last several months," said Ronald Aldridge, the Mississippi state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "There have to be some changes in the court systems. It's steadily getting worse."



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