Additional Tort Reform May Be Ahead

From the Charleston Daily Mail February 15, 2003, Saturday
Copyright 2003 Charleston Newspapers

Changes to the state’s legal system included in a medical malpractice bill may be just the beginning of tort reform in West Virginia, both supporters and opponents say.

“I think there’s other areas of reform we need to look at,” said House Speaker Bob Kiss.

Those areas include restricting nonresidents’ ability to sue in West Virginia for actions outside the state, eliminating the joint liability and barring third-party claims against insurers for violating the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Opponents of the bills say medical malpractice reforms opened the door for victims’ rights to further be diminished.

Gary Zuckett, a lobbyist with the West Virginia Consumers and Victims Coalition, said the bills requiring more changes are an attempt by insurance companies to avoid paying deserved payments.

“They want to be able to stall people’s legitimate claims,” Zuckett said. “The insurance companies don’t want to play fair.”

After seeing the Legislature help doctors by working on a medical malpractice bill that includes tort reform, insurance companies now want the same benefits for all cases, Zuckett said.

“We’re not lawyers, we’re not doctors and we don’t sell insurance. From the consumer’s side, the court system is not broken,” Zuckett said. “All of a sudden everyone’s talking about how it’s broken, but I don’t think it’s broken and I don’t think it needs fixed.”

Zuckett said his organization, along with labor and social justice groups, want to see the state insurance commission tighten regulations on the insurance industry instead of making more changes to the legal system.

But both Democrats and Republicans in the House support several bills introduced this year dealing with tort reform.

At a recent legislative breakfast, House Minority Leader Charles Trump said the Legislature should tackle additional problems with the state’s court system, including using West Virginia as a venue for nonresidents’ lawsuits.

“It’s almost like we’re a black hole that draws people in from all over,” Trump said.

One of the introduced bills, House Bill 2809, would deal with third-party claims and medical monitoring cases. A public hearing is scheduled on that bill for Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. in the House Chambers at the Capitol.

Others will be dealt with as the House finishes up work on other issues, leaders said.