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No middle ground on tort reform

As I See It

Just a few years ago the average Mississippian didn’t even know what a “tort” was. Now torts and tort reform has become a common topic in our state.

How did we go from blissful ignorance to fighting mad in such a short time? As with most problems, pure greed is the answer. Who’s being greedy and who’s not is the cause of much controversy these days.

One side of the debate, usually held by businesses and the medical community, says that flaws in Mississippi’s judicial system and some gullible jurors have turned our state into a mecca for trial lawyers.

This group contends that juries are routinely awarding unconscionable financial verdicts to the detriment of the state’s economy and health care delivery system. Juries in four rural Mississippi counties seem to be attempting to set records for awarding huge judgements to victims of all sorts of non-criminal acts committed by businesses, doctors and drug companies. The result is that insurance premiums are either exorbitant in price or unavailable under any circumstances. Doctors are closing up shop and leaving the state by the droves, sometimes just going to Louisiana, which has limits on punitive damage settlements.

The financial awards in question are not those which seek to put the victim back in the same place he would have been had he not been victimized. No one is suggesting that adequate compensatory damages should not be awarded. The culprit is the punitive damages, which are meant to punish the perpetrator for his careless acts. These punitive damages run from the tens of millions of dollars to amounts in excess of a $100 million. That’s a heap of punishment for the guilty and a truckload of profit for the innocent victim and his attorney.

The other side of the issue claims that these careless rogues deserve to be punished mightily and the insurance companies are just blowing smoke. In essence, Mississippi is full of surgeons who routinely amputate the wrong foot, drug companies who dispense arsenic and insurance companies who got fat and lazy off the booming stock market of the 1990s and can’t manage their business in a recession.

Any limit on punitive damages, says this group, would be unfair to poor victimized Mississippians. Everyone deserves their day in court and juries shouldn’t be limited in the amount of damages they award. After all, everyone knows that doctors are incompetent, arrogant and overpaid anyway and attorneys are just pursuing the American dream.

In order to address the problem, Governor Musgrove is calling for a special session of the Legislature to set up a fund to help doctors pay their insurance premiums. The legislative committees who will propose changes to the system are composed mostly of trial lawyers. Those foxes can certainly be counted on to guard the hen house. We can all sleep better at night knowing this group is designing solutions that will sacrifice their personal incomes for the benefit of our state. Truly, a selfless bunch.

Let me take tongue out of cheek now.

Though the details of the governor’s plan aren’t known at this time I have a fear that his idea is to transfer the financial burden from the insurance companies to the taxpayers. This would take the form of some type of insurance pool from which physicians could obtain liability insurance at affordable rates. Assuming that the governor’s plan is something along these lines nothing would be accomplished but a shift of the financial burden from the insurance companies to the taxpayers. Great deal for Mississippians, huh! The trial lawyers would continue to wallow in wealth but now it would be at taxpayer expense.

The problem is greed and nothing short of addressing the problem head-on is going to work. And addressing the problem head-on means the trail lawyers, like Governor Musgrove and his financial backers, will earn less money. This is a job for statesmen and statesmen are in short supply in the Mississippi Legislature. I fear the situation must get much worse before improvement is forthcoming.

Laws are only required when people don’t “do right” on their own accord. When our legal system gets out of whack, it must be fixed. When the system results in opportunists and trial lawyers becoming mega-millionaires at the expense of hard working common folk there is obviously a systemic problem that needs addressing. Unfortunately, the Legislature is the “fixing” mechanism and that group’s personal income will be detrimentally impacted by the fix. No fix will be forthcoming until the hue and cry from the public becomes deafening.

Consider for a moment that the trial lawyers claim to be protecting Mississippi citizens from careless health care practices. As they drive the doctors out of our state, their actions will result in our not having access to health care at all, careless or otherwise. If there is a collective ounce of conscience among them this should cause loss of sleep.

What’s that I hear — snoring? Oh well, election day is coming.

Thought for the Moment — No matter what you’ve done for yourself or for humanity, if you can’t look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?

— Retired auto executive Lee Iacocca

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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