Last month, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale’s secretary noticed that an Alabama-based law firm had filed an unusually large number of lawsuits against insurance companies in Mississippi, all of them in low income counties such as Jones, Jefferson and Sunflower.
Dale asked her to track the filings for a four-week period beginning March 25 and discovered that 33 lawsuits had been filed against “a whole passel of companies, mostly dealing with financing of some sort,” said Dale.
“Now they’re coming in on a daily basis,” he added. “Six were filed today (May 3).”
The lawsuits are rolling in from the Montgomery law firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, led by Jere Beasley, senior partner and Alabama’s lieutenant governor from 1971 to 1978. He left public office after an unsuccessful 1978 gubernatorial campaign and focused on being a champion for the “little guy.” In 1998, the Montgomery Independent called him “the closest thing to Ralph Nader we have in Alabama.”
“I’ve been here 27 years and within the last few months, Beasley has filed the largest number of lawsuits by any one company,” said Dale.
When reached for comment on the filings, Beasley was fresh from a courtroom victory. The day before, an Alabama jury had awarded his client $122 million.
“I really don’t know the number of lawsuits filed in Mississippi,” said Beasley. “I know we’ve filed lawsuits in several counties in several states, as far away as Minnesota.”
Beasley acknowledged that many of the 50 or so lawyers at the firm had taken the Mississippi bar exam, but quickly added that they had also taken bar exams in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas.
“If anybody’s told you we picked Mississippi, they’re misrepresenting the truth,” said Beasley. “We’ve increased filings in Alabama and other states because we’ve increased interest from people who see our Web site and read about what we’re doing for consumers.”
Beasley balked at the notion that Mississippi venues were chosen because of big verdicts for out-of-state plaintiffs against national companies and that Alabama trial lawyers have flooded Mississippi courts since Alabama passed tort reform legislation in 1999.
“No, as a matter of fact, the $122-million verdict against GM was in Alabama,” he said.
The suit was filed against General Motors Corp. by Wilbert Jernigan, on behalf of his son, Jeffrey Jernigan, who was riding in the front seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 driven by his brother that collided with another vehicle in 1999. The younger Jernigan, then 12, suffered permanent brain damage after sustaining an injury that required doctors to remove nearly one-third of his brain.
“GM gambled when they made design changes, knew about design defects and failed to warn the public of the hazards,” said Beasley. “When GM initiated its cost reduction program, they saved $2,500 on the cost of every car. That added up to $1.84 billion over a five-year period. Nobody knows it. Why not? Because nobody writes about it. Nobody sees the documents because they keep it confidential and hidden until the trial.”
David Baria, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said he doesn’t believe that Mississippi’s growing national reputation as a lawsuit Mecca had anything to do with the Beasley firm’s recent filings.
“It simply means that the firm has made in-roads in the state,” he said. “If I start a company that sells widgets in Mississippi and grow, I’ll go to Alabama, Louisiana and Florida, too.”
Mississippi trial lawyers don’t seem concerned about the increased competition, said Baria.
“Some trial lawyers probably have a problem with out of state law firms filing lawsuits in Mississippi, just as people have problems with competition at any level,” he said. “Personally, I have no problem with them doing business in this state. The Beasley law firm is very reputable and I know some of the members personally. They passed the bar just like I did and have to comply with the same rules.”
Despite a strong push for tort reform legislation in Mississippi this year from dozens of organizations, including Mississippians For Economic Progress, a group of nearly 50 associations that banded together for the sole purpose of lobbying for it, none was passed in the trial lawyer-governed Legislature.
Partly as a result, many Mississippi physicians have left the state or opted for early retirement because malpractice insurance costs have skyrocketed. The May 13 issue of Forbes magazine prominently featured Tupelo physician Walter Eckman, a defendant in a lawsuit this past winter that resulted in a $5-million award to the widow of a man who died following an incident at the North Mississippi Medical Center, where Eckman was on call as a neurosurgeon. The article focused on “the tort mess,” citing out-of-control lawsuits that are shutting down medical practices, killing businesses and costing the economy $200 billion a year. It also explored the devastating consequences in Mississippi, including the practical impossibility of recruiting new doctors to the area.
“If business didn’t have insurance, would there be as many lawsuits filed, knowing that there wouldn’t be access to the millions of dollars that insurance provides? I don’t think so,” said Dale. “In fact, I’ve encouraged some doctors to go naked, but they don’t want to take the risk. Unless there are deep pockets, some attorneys wouldn’t go to the trouble to file a lawsuit.”
In a recent letter to the Mississippi Business Journal, Baria pointed out “not a single insurer has stepped forward to state that tort ‘reforms’ in this or any other state would lower medical malpractice insurance rates. In fact, the president of the American Tort Reform Association is on record saying, ‘I wouldn’t tell you or anyone that the reason to pass tort reform would be to reduce insurance rates’.”
“Even though other factors have brought about insurance rate increases and the current tightening of the market,” said Dale, “the legal climate is one of those factors.”
Chances are slim that the legal climate will change any time soon, particularly since political campaigns are infused with contributions from trial lawyers for trial lawyers. Beasley has admittedly made contributions to politicians in Alabama and other states. During the last election cycle, Beasley’s law firm contributed $780,000 to Alabama’s democratic party, according to remarks by the state Republican party chairman during a summer meeting July 28, 2001. Nine plaintiff lawyers gave Alabama Democrats 60% of all funds raised. Another 7% came from other trial lawyers.
“I have an obligation to make political contributions for people running for governor, lieutenant government and judgeships,” Beasley said. “I’d like to see restrictions put on the amount of money that anyone — an individual, corporation or PAC — could contribute, especially to judicial candidates. I’ve said that for five years or more because I don’t think the General Motors and pharmaceutical companies should run the show, which they’ve done for years. That’s why I supported campaign finance reforms so strongly on the national level.”
Meanwhile, the Beasley law firm will probably continue to pay the $25 fee to file lawsuits against insurance companies in Mississippi. “We’ll probably continue to have more than our share,” said Dale.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo