- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Mississippi lawmakers slapped sweeping restrictions on lawsuits yesterday in an effort to shed the state's reputation as the haven for trial lawyers seeking eye-popping verdicts.
After a record 83-day special session, the Legislature voted to strengthen its protections for businesses against lawsuits, placing caps on punitive damages, revising rules regarding trial venues and establishing protections for retailers in product-liability cases.
Business groups had lobbied hard for changes to tort laws, arguing that massive jury awards and frivolous lawsuits were costing taxpayers and scaring away new businesses. Mississippi remained one of the few states that had not passed major tort-reform legislation.
"In general, we are pleased to have gotten some legislation passed," said Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. "We got a goodly portion of the tort reform we wanted."
Because of its unusually liberal laws regarding trial venues, the state had gained notoriety for attracting huge trials against corporations, particularly in poor and rural towns in the southwest portion of the state. In several counties there, registered lawyers far outnumbered town populations.
And because of a lack of caps on punitive damages, jury awards against tobacco, asbestos and drug manufacturers were routinely some of the highest in the nation. Seven cases tried in Mississippi since 1995 have seen verdicts of $100 million or more.
In May, Mississippi drew the attention of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which warned companies against doing business in the state. It was the first time in its 90-year history that the chamber issued such a decree.
Among the changes passed by the Legislature:
All civil cases must be tried in the county where the defendant lives, where the misdeed occurred or where the event that caused the injury occurred.
Punitive damages, or those designed to prevent wrongdoing, will be capped. The biggest companies will pay no more than $20 million, with smaller businesses paying on a sliding scale.
Revision of the joint- and several-liability rule, which had allowed people with partial liability to pay more than their fair share of the jury award. For instance, a person found 10 percent liable under the law will be asked to pay no more than 10 percent of the jury award. Those more than 30 percent liable could still pay as much as 50 percent of a verdict.
Retailers will be exempt from liability if they sell a product they were not aware was faulty.
Trial lawyers had lobbied against any tort reform, arguing that caps on punitive damages would take away an incentive for corporations to stop bad behavior. In recent months, lawyers frequently invoked the name of WorldCom Inc. the Clinton, Miss., company under investigation by the Justice Department as an example of corporate malfeasance.
Shane Langston, a past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said citizens of the state would not see any positive financial effects from the new laws.
"Reform is not a good word," Mr. Langston said. "Reform means it's for the better. This will hurt many Mississippians. It's going to have a dramatic impact on the way corporations can value your recovery."
Lawyers association President David Baria said the Legislature passed legislation based on misleading and often false information.
"I naively felt like we could go to the Legislature and present them with the facts, figuring they would disprove what was being said," he said.
The special legislative session convened in September at the urging of Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat who is expected to sign the legislation Dec. 13.
In October, the Legislature passed reforms to cap jury awards against doctors and hospitals in an effort to slow the rising cost of medical-malpractice premiums. But tort-reform advocates were not satisfied.
"Even the doctors told us that by passing medical-malpractice reforms, we were only halfway there," said Dean Kirby, a Republican from Pearl, Miss., and chairman of the state Senate's insurance committee. "This is as important as anything we've done to attract new businesses and keep businesses here."
Those close to the legislative process said the governor was instrumental in urging the Legislature to pass a bill once they had reached common ground on many issues. In a speech last week, he expressed impatience with how long the process was taking.
"The Legislature has been here since the opening of dove season, and now we're into deer season. That's too long," Mr. Musgrove said Friday. "When they come back on Monday, they need to pass what they've got, send me a bill for my signature and go home."
Tort-reform advocates said they will fight for more legislative action during the next legislative session, in January. In particular, they said they will push for the elimination of joinder, a rule that allows many cases with similar circumstances to be pooled. In addition, they will lobby for additional caps on damages associated with pain and suffering.
But legislative insiders said passage of any tort-reform laws in 2003 is unlikely. Next year is an election year, and few legislators will be inclined to tackle the issue again, particularly in the face of an expected $650 million state budget shortfall, they said.
"I really felt like it was this year or two years from now," Mr. Kirby said.


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