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Press Release

House Sets Limits for Tort Reform Debate


From the Charleston Gazette, January 22, 2004, Thursday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

Senate Republicans introduced civil tort reform legislation Wednesday, but House of Delegates leaders indicated they will only consider tort reform as part of an insurance fraud bill set for House passage today.

"As far as [the House] working subsequent tort reform, or insurance reform, this was the bill we intended to work," said Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.

The legislation on the floor (HB4004) would change the way jury damage awards are apportioned in all non-contract lawsuits.

Current law allows multiple defendants in the same lawsuit to be jointly liable for a damage award. The proposed legislation would limit the share a defendant pays to the percentage of blame assigned by the jury, if that percentage is 10 percent or less.

Kiss expects possible other tort reform amendments to be proposed to the bill during floor debate today or Friday. Only one amendment had been filed by Wednesday afternoon, and it does not deal with tort reform.

While the committee tort reform change upset some in the insurance industry, their real objection to the legislation was an amendment eliminating credit-scoring. Insurers base policy rates on a person's credit history.

Ending credit-scoring would put the state "out of step with the rest of the country" and could make getting policies more difficult, said Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline. The commission is participating in a study concerning credit-scoring and what it does.

The Judiciary Committee made other substantial changes to the legislation Wednesday including increasing the powers of the state Insurance Commission's consumer advocate to include automobile and homeowners insurance and making drivers report accidents that cause damage of $ 1,000 or more, higher than the $ 250 threshold recommended by an interim legislative committee.

Kiss said several groups have expressed displeasure with individual changes.

Cline said the administration would like to have all amendments removed from the proposal, including the joint and several liability provision, leaving only insurance fraud.

The legislation creates a fraud unit in the Insurance Commission, something the speaker said "appears to be pretty unanimous" in support for it in the lower chamber.

Senate Republicans announced they will file legislation limiting punitive damage awards, capping non-economic damage awards, eliminating joint and several liability and forcing attorneys to disclose all fees, provide estimates of expenses in writing and allowing potential clients to decide to pay them by hourly fees or contingency fees.

"While there is absolutely no guarantee this bill will bring down [insurance] rates tomorrow, we've got to address the tort reform problem," said Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha.

Sprouse, Senate minority leader, called the House tort reform legislation "a baby step."

"We need to take a leap," he said.

"I think the House leadership would prefer to dispose of these issues this week," Kiss said, adding the House will deal with any Senate-passed legislation.

GOP senators also promised separate legislation ending third-party bad faith lawsuits and making the election of circuit judges non-partisan.

Later, the state Trial Lawyers Association and the Citizens Action group presented almost 5,000 letters opposing tort reform to lawmakers. They contend high insurance rates stem from lower investment income for insurance firms and the competitive insurance market in the late 1990s.

"The reforms the insurance industry wants will destroy consumer protection laws that require these corporations to deal fairly with West Virginians and will essentially take away their constitutional right to a jury trial," said Charleston lawyer Marvin Masters, Trial Lawyers president.

He said the insurance industry had profits of $ 21 billion in the first three-quarters of this year.

"So-called tort reform is the insurance industry codeword for taking away citizens' rights," said Gary Zuckett with CAG.

In other House floor action Wednesday:

s Today's House agenda was set as a potentially lively session, with four major pieces of legislation at passage stage with amendments allowed.

Those include proposals to lower the blood-alcohol concentration to be considered legally intoxicated from 0.10 to 0.08 (HB4032), an all-terrain vehicle safety bill (HB4022), two education bills (HB4043) (HB4072) and legislation proposed by Kiss to force drug companies to sell products to West Virginia at the federal government rate (HB4084).

The speaker hopes all pass today.

"We need to move some of these core things out early," he said.

s Kiss said chances of raising the cigarette tax as Gov. Bob Wise proposed is still "too early to tell."

s The House honored 6-year-old South Charleston twins Patrick and David O'Leary for turning in the $ 17 they recently found. When the rightful owner couldn't be located, the twins got to keep the money. They gave $ 6 to a sports center, $ 6 to their church and kept $ 5 for "Happy Meals."