On the afternoon of April 28, following the annual meeting of the Mississippi Economic Council, several hundred business leaders and healthcare professionals from across the state rallied at the Capitol to show their support for Gov. Haley Barbour`s plan to pass comprehensive civil justice reform legislation.
Barbour has been adamant about enacting more tort reform in 2004, specifically lowering the cap on pain-and-suffering damages from $500,000 to $250,000.
“Everybody understands that lawsuit abuse has hurt the quality of healthcare in our state,” said Barbour. “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 why 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.”
The April 28 rally, and one held Feb. 25 at the Capitol, has done little to sway House leaders.
Last month, House Judiciary A Committee chairman Ed Blackmon Jr. (D-Canton), barred a comprehensive Senate-passed tort reform bill from coming out of his committee for a floor vote. Several 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 seven-point package, which calls for changes in court venue, premises liability, punitive damages, innocent seller, caps, joint and several liability and jury selection. He vowed to dilute pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases from $500,000 to $250,000, the biggest point of contention for Barbour. State lawmakers have been criticized for having in place caps to protect government from excessive jury awards, but not for businesses.
“The people of Mississippi are clearly supportive of the kinds of tort reform the governor has recommended,” said George McGee, M.D., a Hattiesburg surgeon and president of the Mississippi State Medical Association. “It is frustrating to see that we have a vehicle in the form of a bill that will allow that to happen and yet it`s not being allowed to go to the vote of the people`s representatives in the House. The blockage of the ability of the people`s representatives to vote is extremely frustrating not only to me but to the rest of the state.”
The Legislature has the perfect opportunity to pass this bill in the current session without going to the added cost of another special session, said McGee. The regular legislation session ended May 9. The 2002 special session on tort reform lasted 83 days and cost taxpayers $1.6 million.
“But I think, and the vast majority of other physicians and citizens that I know feel the same way, that if the leaders of the House are not going to let them vote on the issue, then we’re all very supportive of the governor calling a special session to deal with the issue,” he said. “That`s an expensive way to get the thing accomplished.”
Steve Browning, executive director for Mississippians for Economic Progress, said the organization`s members are “optimistic that something`s going to happen, if not in the regular session, then later in the year.”
“Anything`s possible in the last days of the regular session,” he said. “Certainly, I know a lot of lawmakers on either side of this issue who live in Northeast Mississippi and on the Gulf Coast and do not want to come back into Jackson for a special session. The drive from Canton to Jackson is no big deal, but there are other factors in play as well. You never know what`s going to happen.”
House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) has also been criticized for using “procedural maneuvering” to block caps.
“Old rules have been used, more or less, as hurdles to prevent the House from having a say on civil justice reform,” said Browning.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.