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Governor believes majority of House members support effort

Barbour vows comprehensive tort reform in 2004

Gov. Haley Barbour is determined to see state lawmakers pass comprehensive tort reform this year so Mississippi can end lawsuit abuse.

“I have proposed legislation that the Senate passed by more than a 2-1 majority, and I believe a majority of the members of the House support comprehensive tort reform,” said Barbour. “However, they have not been allowed to vote on it. Now there`s another effort in the House to revive tort reform. And my goal is to get comprehensive tort reform during the regular session. If we don`t get it in the regular session, I`ll call a special session or special sessions if necessary. I’m committed to comprehensive tort reform this year. We`ll do this and get it behind us.”

Despite a Feb. 25 rally at the Capitol, where Barbour was surrounded by hundreds of supporters when he addressed the issue of civil justice reform and the need for new damage awards caps, House leaders have repeatedly blocked his efforts. Some legislators believe federal legislation is needed first to reform the practices of the insurance industry, which is largely exempt from federal antitrust laws.

Last month, House Judiciary A Committee chairman Ed Blackmon Jr., an attorney from Canton, barred a comprehensive Senate-passed tort reform bill from coming out of his committee for a floor vote. Two weeks ago, the House voted 110-8 for a resolution to resurrect a tort reform proposal that does not lower the cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases.

Blackmon said the House should consider his watered-down, seven-point package, which calls for changes in court venue, premises liability, punitive damages, innocent seller, caps, joint and several liability and jury selection, but vowed to dilute pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases from $500,000 to $250,000, the biggest point of contention for Barbour.

House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) has also foiled passage of a complete package with caps. Greenwood Commonwealth editor Tim Kalich, who is not necessarily a Barbour fan, wrote on April 18:

“After Blackmon sat on a watered-down tort reform bill because he couldn`t dictate how it might be amended, the Senate tried another route. It attached the changes it advocates – lower damage caps, further curbs on venue shopping and proportionate liability in multiple-defendant lawsuits – to a House banking bill.

“The measure breezed through the Senate and was en route back to the House, where sympathetic Banking Chairman Danny Guice was waiting to push it along.

“McCoy intervened, invoking a little-used rule to send the bill instead to Blackmon`s committee, where it`s destined to be stripped down or killed.

“McCoy may hold the trump cards this hand, but he is playing them in a manner that is out of touch with the desires of the majority of Mississippians.”

The regular legislation session ends May 9. The 2002 special session on tort reform lasted 83 days and cost taxpayers $1.6 million.

“A majority of the members of the House will ultimately get their will,” said Barbour. “And the continued resurrection of tort reform in the House is a testament to the strong support for tort reform among House members. They are and should continue to seek a vote.

“The Senate has sent them a comprehensive tort reform bill that never was considered for a vote. The Senate sent them another comprehensive tort reform bill by amending a House bill and adding some tort reform provisions to that. Thus far, there`s not been a vote on that. Some weeks ago, in order to try to bring this to a conclusion, I offered the House a compromise that they chose not to accept. But the issue cannot be resolved until the House votes. And if it doesn`t get done in the regular session, I will use the authority I have to put it in front of the legislature during special session.”

On April 20, Barbour signed into law House Bill 1517, which reduces the liability in asbestos lawsuits for Crown Cork & Seal of Batesville and protects the company`s 250 jobs. The maker of aluminum soft drink cans has been hammered with million-dollar asbestos-related lawsuits for problems related to the acquisition of corporate stock of another bottle cap company with a small insulation business.

“Crown Cork & Seal deserved relief, but there are hundreds of other companies in Mississippi that also deserve relief,” said Barbour. “Why just one company? And that the House would pass that bill overwhelmingly is recognition that lawsuit abuse discourages job creation.”

Proponents of the Crown Cork & Seal bill that oppose comprehensive tort reform say they supported the Batesville company to protect 250 jobs.

“They recognize this is about protecting and creating jobs,” said Barbour. “That`s why we need tort reform. We have 1.2 million jobs in Mississippi and that`s just 250. There are many companies similarly situated, and thousands of companies that are threatened by the same sort of thing. There are companies who won`t come here because they don`t want to take the risk, and they don`t want to have the uncertainty that comes with lawsuit abuse.”

For three consecutive years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has named Mississippi the worst state in the nation for lawsuit abuse, Barbour pointed out.

“That costs us opportunities to create new jobs and bring in new businesses,” he said. “And of course everybody understands that lawsuit abuse has hurt the quality of healthcare in our state. It`s hurt access to healthcare, and it`s driven up the cost of healthcare to make it less affordable. These are all commonly understood reasons that we need comprehensive tort reform. The majority of Mississippians know we need it and want it and the majority of legislators know we need comprehensive tort reform and want to vote for it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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