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Press Release

Candidates Defend Legal System


From the Charleston Daily Mail, March 23, 2004, Tuesday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

The three leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor all say that West Virginia's civil justice system is not broken, and they would not seek to change it.

Joe Manchin, Lloyd Jackson and Jim Lees all agreed that West Virginia's court system isn't the kind of tort hell depicted by the Chamber of Commerce. Rather, they say so-called tort reform measures would limit access to courtrooms.

"Where we are today is satisfactory to me," Lees, a Charleston lawyer, said in a meeting with Daily Mail editors on Monday. "I don't see a need for what you all call civil justice reform."

Putting caps on jury awards is the top priority of business and civil justice reform groups, who say the state's legal climate is costing the state millions every year in litigation costs and high insurance rates, as well as choking efforts to attract new businesses.

To a man, the Democratic front-runners say the proposed reforms would translate to limited access to the legal system for West Virginia citizens, without any guarantee of an improved business climate or lower insurance rates.

Jackson, a former Lincoln County prosecutor, said most tort reform measures would "close our courtrooms to people who have a legitimate issue they need addressed."

Manchin, the secretary of state and a small businessman, agreed.

"Being the only non-lawyer, I agree with where they're both coming from on that," he said. "The protections have to be there for the citizens of West Virginia."

Jackson and Lees said the only type of tort reform they would consider is limiting what's known as joint and several liability. That allows an injured plaintiff to collect a full settlement payout from defendants who are not fully responsible for the injuries.

The business community, meanwhile, is pushing for a cocktail of reforms: limiting punitive damage awards, eliminating third-party bad faith lawsuits and making judicial elections non-partisan, among a long list of others.

The Legislature did not enact any of these tort reform measures this year, leaving the issues for the next governor.

Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said nearly every state has adopted at least some of the changes his group is pushing. "That is evidence right there that we are out of step," he said.

Bill Bissett, director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the trio of Democrats has tailored their message to trial lawyers.

"It clearly demonstrates the power and money of the trial bar," he said. "That's a sought-after endorsement. That sounds like that's what's driving these messages."

West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association President Marvin Masters said the Democrats' anti-tort reform positions are staked on simple facts, not political calculation.

"I think it's the truth," he said. "The Chamber of Commerce is a chamber of horrors for West Virginia. They just create bad publicity and call us names or call the state names, like it's some terrible place. It's just not true. We're not out of step. There's nothing wrong with our system of justice."

Jackson, while serving as Senate Judiciary chairman a decade ago, said the insurance industry and legal experts could never promise that tort reform would lead to lower insurance rates.

"Not a penny," Jackson said. "It's not all about our judicial system."

Instead, Jackson said he would seek to lower insurance rates by creating a consumer advocate in the Insurance Commission and perhaps loosening some of the laws that govern insurance companies.

Manchin said he would seek to join with other states to buy insurance in bulk.

West Virginia has some of the highest car and homeowners insurance rates, per capita, in the nation.

Also in Monday's editorial board meeting:

n Manchin, receding from the pro-gambling mold he's built so far in the campaign, said he would not advocate for table games at state racetracks. He said he would sign a bill allowing voters to decide whether to add the table games, but that he does not personally support gambling expansion.

"I have no intent in terms of introducing legislation, in terms of expansion of gaming," Manchin said. "If the Legislature passed in the proper form, that's one thing. It's not my agenda whatsoever."

Like Manchin, Lees said he would approve a local option on table games.

Jackson is opposed to table games and said he would veto any attempt to authorize them.

n All three candidates said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and would not support the recognition of same-sex marriages in West Virginia.

The state already passed, in 2000, a Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits same-sex marriages.