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Exec says unfair litigation a

Need for tort reform in state driven home

Reuben Anderson (l-r), Bill Yates and William Yates visit before the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting luncheon in Jackson May 21st.

JACKSON — In the Mississippi business world, snakes are often used to illustrate the socioeconomic climate. And the 53rd-annual Mississippi Economic Council meeting was no exception.

Two years ago, native Mississippian James Barksdale, former Netscape director, partner of The Barksdale Group, founder of The Barksdale Reading Institute, and keynote speaker for the event, talked about the “three snakes rule.”

“One, if you see a snake, don’t consult a committee, don’t hold a meeting, just kill it,” he said. “Two, don’t play with a dead snake. And three, remember that all opportunities start out looking like a snake. All of the great businesses have started with problems that become opportunities.”

At the pre-luncheon session, “Tort Reform: Seeking A Mississippi Solution,” Alan Perry of Forman, Perry, Watkins, Krutz & Tardy, LLC, of Jackson, also talked about three snakes.

“Three men are in a boat when they discover three snakes in the boat,” he said. “One panics and shoots a snake. He kills it, but by doing so, he puts a hole in the boat. The boat starts taking on water and begins to sink. Now they have two snakes left in the boat, the water’s rising, and they’re in the middle of a lake that has — guess what? — more snakes. That’s what we seem to have done with tort reform legislation in Mississippi. It’s going to take more than just the business community to make a change. We need to educate the public and work together toward a viable solution because confusion is the ally of those that oppose change.”

From huddled clusters in hallways to round table discussions in the banquet room, concerns over Mississippi’s legal climate dominated conversations of more than 1,000 business and health care professionals who attended MEC’s annual meeting held May 21 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Jackson.

Under increasing pressure to support tort reform legislation as the 2003 gubernatorial election nears, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove promised he would soon unveil a proposal that he has been formulating for nearly six months.

“It’s time we move ahead on this issue,” he said. “It’s time we bring what we all know is needed: a good, fair playing field for business and citizens. We’re looking at innovative ideas to provide health care providers with stable insurance.”

Speculation that he would call a special session to propose some type of state-administered insurance pool for high-risk medical specialties didn’t placate health care providers.

“For doctors, the constant threat of lawsuits isn’t an income issue. It’s a livelihood issue,” said Dr. Kenneth Davis, a panelist at the tort reform session and chief medical officer of the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, the nation’s largest non-metropolitan hospital.

“As a physician, our job is to reduce suffering,” Davis said. “But we’re suffering. I hope when you leave, you’re suffering as we are.”

Rep. George Flaggs Jr. (D-Vicksburg) and several other participants squirmed as the Harvard-trained doctor rattled off statistics in the state’s $11-billion industry and told how the Delta has become a third world country regarding health care.

“Just looking at the money, of that $11 billion, which has a tremendous impact on the state’s economy, the federal government only contributes $4 billion, so our health care industry is in a crisis economically. Looking at the numbers, the U.S. average for physicians per 100,000 is 150. In Mississippi, it’s 82. For our 30 county area — 26 are in Mississippi — we need more than 900 doctors. We have 560 and we’re losing 100 this year.”

Possible tort solutions Davis proposed: public understanding of consequences, fair and balanced civil justice system, validity testing for claims filed and caps on attorney fees, a statewide compensation pool and leadership.

Mississippi Blood Services president and CEO David Allen, vice president of Mississippi For Economic Progress, said the state suffers from “mass action” suits, not class action suits.

“In the criminal justice system, the accused are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “In the civil justice system, no evidence is needed to make a claim, and the accused are guilty until proven innocent. Juries aren’t the problem. The leaders driving the wagon are the problem.”

The biggest round of applause came after Allen pointed in the crowd to Jess Dickinson, a judicial candidate who will oppose Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae this year, and said, “If Chief Justice Pittman retires, Justice McRae will become the chief justice. That’ll give you something to think about.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Reuben V. Anderson of Phelps Dunbar, LLC, of Jackson, moderator of the panel discussion, called tort reform “the biggest challenge Mississippi has faced in the 35 years I’ve practiced law, 17 of those as a judge.”

Mickey Holliman, CEO of Furniture Brands International, and keynote speaker for the event, called the threat of unfair litigation a “noose around the necks of our entrepreneurs.”

“I’ve made reference to Lane’s need to further expand its capacity here in the state of Mississippi,” Holliman told a rapt audience. “There could be other opportunities for expansion in this state from within Furniture Brands as well, but, and I say this as someone who loves this state, not in this environment. And if you think you are going to attract other business to this state, run by people who don’t already feel the passion for Mississippi that we all feel, well, you’d better think again.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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