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Civil justice reform requires thoughtful debate and discussion

MBJ Editorial

Mississippi trial lawyers make easy targets.

As a profession, attorneys do not enjoy the most sterling of reputations, although to be fair neither do journalists. When the issue of tort reform arises, many in the business community are quick to shake their fingers and blame “those trial lawyers” for our state’s reputation as a lawsuit haven, which frightens new business and industry from coming to Mississippi.

As The New York Times pointed out in a page one article in August, “Mississippi has gained a national reputation as a place where consumers fare well in court — so well that the state has become a magnet for liability lawsuits.”

Both sides on this issue are armed with facts, studies and stats that they believe proves — irrefutably — that they are right. Beyond a doubt.

In fact, the reality is much more tricky.

There are cases in which a civil lawsuit is justified. However, going to court should be considered only when all other avenues of settlement have been exhausted. Today in Mississippi, that doesn’t happen nearly often enough. So-called jackpot justice, in actual practice and in reputation, is the new order in courtrooms around the state.

That is the reality our state faces, and it is a reality that is anti-business, anti-industry and anti-economy. And regrettably, it has fully developed just as Mississippi needs more investments from other parts of the country — and the world — and new markets for our own goods and services.

It will be devastating if these circumstances are allowed to continue. Meaningful and honest debate and discussion with a willingness to compromise and do what is right for Mississippi is where we should begin righting this situation. One-hundred-million dollar jury awards are not compromise, nor are lawyer-bashing jokes, finger-pointing and overzealous rhetoric.

Three things should happen:

• Leaders in the business community, the legal profession and our courts must address this problem directly.

• The Legislature should take up the issue of reform and quit bowing down and out to special interest groups.

• Mississippians should take seriously their service on juries and consider the long-range economic impact of their decisions, as well as what we want our legal system to be: a protector of individual rights, property and freedom for all or a get-rich-quick scam for the few.

And in the end, that’s really what this issue is all about — the people of Mississippi.

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