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Press Release

Sides Battling Over Tort Reform


From the Charleston Daily Mail, January 21, 2004, Wednesday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

Business groups love it. Trial lawyers hate it.

Either way, tort reform has emerged at the Legislature this session, with the House of Delegates advancing a bill that would impose limits on the way juries award damages in some cases.

The business community sees the tort reform measure currently before the House of Delegates - limiting joint and several liability payouts - as the first step in a long list of civil justice reforms that must be put in place before car and homeowners insurance rates are driven down.

"West Virginia is going to have to undertake comprehensive civil justice reform before we see improvement in insurance costs," West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said. "A little here and a little there - that will just make a little bit of difference."

Trial lawyers, however, say this year's round of proposed tort reform legislation is nothing more than bowing to the insurance industry.

"We're talking about rolling back laws to benefit insurance companies," Trial Lawyers Association President Marvin Masters said. "This won't lower insurance rates.

"We've got a $ 124 million (state budget) shortfall, and we're in here trying to help insurance companies."

The tort reform proposal, which was tacked onto a bill to limit insurance abuse, is already becoming a tale of hard-fought compromise.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee wrangled for seven hours on the finer points of a law that allows injured people to collect a full settlement payout from defendants who aren't fully responsible for their injuries, called joint and several liability.

The tort reform measure, proposed in Chairman Jon Amores' Judiciary Committee, would apply a new standard in cases with more than one defendant: Defendants responsible for less than 10 percent of the damages can be held liable for their portion.

Anyone found more than 10 percent responsible could still be stuck with the entire bill for the damages, under the proposed law.

Amores, D-Kanawha, said curtailing joint and several liability payouts is a tough political sell, partly because it's been around as a legal principle as long as West Virginia has been a state.

"It's a start," he said. "We're talking about a long, established practice."

Even the 10 percent threshold to establish when defendants can be held responsible for all the damages was a compromise.

Amores originally pushed for a 25 percent threshold - a number that some businesses and Republicans thought was low to start with.

"To some people, 10 percent isn't enough," Amores said. "To some people, 10 percent is a huge sea change."

The tort reform measure is attached to a bill to create an insurance fraud investigation unit, which was a major component of Gob. Bob Wise's legislative agenda.

Wise's insurance fraud unit, which would be a five-person investigative arm of the Insurance Commission, also passed the Judiciary committee, and appears to enjoy broad support among lawmakers.

The tort reform measure is on more fragile ground.

Trial lawyers said they planned to lobby hard against more tort reform, beginning with a press conference today.

"The House leadership is trying to help insurance companies," Masters, the trial lawyers association president, said. "Top priority."

Trial lawyers could end up fighting more than just the joint and several liability changes.

House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, said it's likely that terminating third-party bad faith lawsuits - something coveted by business groups - could also end up being debated on the House floor.

While trial lawyers say the tort reform measures don't lower insurance rates, businesses say they will ultimately lead to lower premiums.

"West Virginia consumers are going to wake up to the fact that we're paying more for insurance than the people right next door," Roberts, the chamber president, said. "That's because we haven't modernized our laws and they have."