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Press Release

Tort Reform Report Lacks Verdict


From the Charleston Gazette January 13, 2004, Tuesday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

The Legislature's committee on tort reform issued its final report Monday. In it, the members made no recommendation, presented no "findings of fact," and asked that the group be disbanded. Observers expect the tort reform debate to continue to be contentious.

They studied tort reform and rising insurance rates for almost a year. They heard conflicting reports from trial lawyers and insurance companies.

After a year of study, members of the Legislature's Committee on Insurance Availability issued its final report Monday evening. They made no recommendation to the Legislature, presented no "findings of fact," and asked that the committee be disbanded.

"We all knew [this issue] was very contentious," said Delegate Steve Kominar, D-Mingo, who co-chaired the committee. "Our charge was to study these things. And I believe we have studied these things very well."

Despite the stalemate in the special committee, several tort reform bills are expected to be introduced during the regular Legislative session starting Wednesday.

The result is similar to that of a medical malpractice committee last year that studied the issue, but did not make specific recommendations. The Legislature went on to pass sweeping tort reform regarding medical malpractice.

Tort reform opponents and proponents each said the committee's lack of findings shows their side was right all along.

"I think this result proves there isn't anything wrong with the civil justice system," said Marvin Masters, president of the state Trial Lawyers Association. "I don't think the other side's data convinced anyone."

Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said the Legislature "has done a terrific job of researching the problem and gathering information. They received reams of data, from the Insurance Commissioner and others, that West Virginia is out of step with the nation."

Roberts said that West Virginia's legal system gives trial lawyers the upper hand. That's why a 35-year-old driver living across the border pays less for auto insurance rates than a driver living in West Virginia with the same record, he said.

Masters said his data shows that state residents pay about the national average for auto and home insurance. He said there is no evidence insurance companies would lower their rates, or even keep them from rising as fast, just because the state changes its civil justice system.

Gov. Bob Wise has said he is not convinced that tort reform would lower insurance rates. Instead, he plans to propose a fraud unit to go after insurance cheaters.

Still, tort reform proponents plan to make a major push for the changes this year. The state Republican Party has made tort reform one of its top four priorities this session.

Delegate Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, said he's still undecided about the issue, after sitting through almost a year of testimony.

"I saw so much conflicting information, whether [tort reform] does or doesn't affect the affordability of premiums. It may end up being very political, to be honest," he said.

"In the end, everybody will have to decide who they believe."