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Press Release

Candidates Differ On Tort Issues


From the Charleston Daily Mail January 23, 2004, Friday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

Tort reform isn't an effective way to drive down insurance rates, the two leading Democratic candidates for governor say.

And both Lloyd Jackson and Joe Manchin agree that a bill poised to pass the House of Delegates today authorizing an insurance fraud investigation unit for the state is the best method to stem rising insurance rates.

But despite those basic agreements, there are several distinctions between Democratic rivals Jackson and Manchin when it comes to the hot topic of the day at the Statehouse - how to lower insurance rates.

Jackson, a former Lincoln County prosecutor, dismisses the tort reform measures championed by the business and medical communities. He has detailed, layered opinions on tort reform issues marked by complexity, like joint and several liability and third-party bad faith lawsuits.

Manchin, by contrast, wouldn't take a stand in an interview on most tort reform questions, saying he lacks the knowledge to take an informed position.

Today, the House of Delegates was set to vote on Gov. Bob Wise's proposed insurance fraud investigation unit. The bill would create a five-person investigative arm under the West Virginia Insurance Commission aimed at ferreting out consumers and insurance companies that bilk the system.

However, a controversial tort reform measure that was tacked onto the bill earlier this week - limiting joint and several liability jury awards - was scuttled Thursday.

House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, said there wasn't a consensus on the tort reform provision, and neither side was happy with the final version of the bill.

The failure to reach consensus could spell the death knell for tort reform this session, at least in the House. Amores said that there's a "general agreement that tort reform in the insurance area won't be taken up this session."

That means the issue of tort reform - whether to push it or shelve it - might be laid at the doorstep of the Governor's Mansion for its next occupant.

Jackson, a former state senator, said it's not "quite as simple" as tort reform advocates claim: that frivolous lawsuits are a main culprit in driving up insurance premiums.

"In my experience, as a legislator, I never found a single case where any insurance company claimed that any tort reform measure would drive down costs," Jackson said. "We would continually ask them."

Jackson said assertions that West Virginia's civil justice system is in disrepair are embellished.

"That's way overstated," he said. "If you talk to people out here who practice in this field, the jury awards and the verdicts simply don't justify that classification of West Virginia. I'm not saying there's no abuses. There's probably a few, but they get a lot of attention."

Jackson said he has qualms with several of the major tort reform provisions pushed by the business and medical communities, especially in the politically volatile areas of joint and several liability and third-party bad faith claims. In general, Jackson said he tends to side with consumer rights, the position often espoused by trial lawyers.

"There are unfortunately times when victims, consumers, need to have the protections," Jackson said. "Those instances are rare, but to deny consumers, victims, that protection wouldn't be right."

Manchin, Jackson's primary opponent, said he won't yet commit to any positions.

When asked if tort reform is an effective method to tackle rising insurance rates, Manchin said, "I don't have the knowledge to give you an answer on that."

Manchin said he'd rather pursue joining with other states similar in population size to increase West Virginia's insurance-buying power, much like the state does with prescription drugs.

"I have no comment on (tort reform) whatsoever," he said. "For me to just shoot from the cuff, I won't do it."

In an e-mail follow up, Manchin, through a spokeswoman, clarified his position by saying he sees "very little connection between tort reform and insurance rates." He also said in the e-mail he's inclined to side with consumer rights in tort reform debates.

"Safeguards must exist so that people who are damaged in some significant way can receive the relief that they are entitled to," he wrote.

In the interview, Manchin declined to offer any opinions on specific areas of tort reform.

"We're looking at every one of them," Manchin said. "We're not going to make hasty remarks on them. We're willing to watch and listen and learn. I'm not going to jump out in front."