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Mississippi tort reform
By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
Last Tuesday, Governor Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi, signed into law legislation dealing with tort reform. Both The Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal had editorials praising the Mississippi legislature and The Wall Street Journal called it a "miracle."
Last year the Jackson Clarion-Ledger ran a series of articles titled "Hitting the Jackpot in Mississippi Courtrooms" which detailed lawsuit abuses and how Mississippi has become a "mecca for out-of-state lawsuits." Jefferson County, the subject of a 60 Minutes episode, has been called "the center for the redistribution of wealth." The Clarion-Ledger wrote, "There have been so many lawsuits filed (in Jefferson County) that the total number of plaintiffs (more than 10,000) has outnumbered that total number of people in the county. And many of those suing aren't from Mississippi." How is this done? Mississippi's laws permit lawsuits to be filed where only one plaintiff or defendant lives. For example, "In April 2000, 398 people who took diet drugs joined in a single lawsuit suing 203 physicians and pharmacies in Jefferson County Circuit Court. None of the plaintiffs and only one defendant lives in Jefferson County."
The series goes on to detail other lawsuits not only in Jefferson County, many of them settled with huge payoffs. In 2000 and 2001 there were 10 cases with payoffs of more than $9 million, with one totaling $474 million. Because of these big jury verdicts, Insurance Commissioner George Dale, in June of 2001, said that forty-four companies had pulled out of Mississippi or stopped selling certain kinds of insurance. The ones that stayed seeked higher rates. Doctors were also leaving Mississippi because of the high insurance rates or the unavailability of insurance caused by these payoffs.
In August of this year the Clarion-Ledger ran another series that dealt with medical malpractice titled, "Fighting Lawyers, Fleeing Doctors: Seeking a Cure." It's a huge problem and Governor Musgrove said that by the end of this last summer, 25 per cent of Mississippi's doctors would not have their insurance coverage renewed.
It looks like Mississippi has finally come to its senses. As the Wall Street Journal says, "The state legislature in Jackson voted to tighten rules on where cases can be tried, cap punitive damage awards, limit the state's joint-and-several liability rule so that companies with little blame can't be soaked as deep pockets, bar advertising by attorneys who aren't licensed to practice in Mississippi and slap a fine on the filing of frivolous lawsuits." Is this enough?
Chip Reno of SLAM (Stop Lawsuit Abuse in Mississippi) emailed me an interesting evaluation of the new law which deserves quoting: "My opinion of the legislation can be summed up in the statement that it's a good first step, but much more has to be done to complete the reforms that are needed. One of the major problems in this state has been in the mass torts area, whereby hundreds of plaintiffs are misjoined into one large lawsuit filed in certain counties in MS. The new law changes nothing as far as joinder of out-of-state plaintiffs in MS. There are not any non-economic damage caps in the new law either. One of the largest recent verdicts of $100 million is all non-economic (pain and suffering) type damages. Finally, the punitive damage caps will ultimately seem as no cap at all, if joinder of mass plaintiffs is not addressed, primarily because the caps are per plaintiff, thus if there are 10 plaintiffs joined in a suit against a bank, the bank could be assessed the capped punitive damage award for all 10 plaintiffs, which could add up to some of the same type of dollar figures that are currently being awarded."
Whether it went far enough or not, the fact that it was passed seems
like a "miracle" to those of us who thought Mississippi would
never change. What brought this about? It was probably a lot of things
including the education of the public by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
But the Clarion-Ledger also says that Jim Shannon of Hazlehurst,
MS, the lead plaintiff attorney in one of Mississippi's big cases, thinks
the Bush administration is responsible for the renewed nationwide tort
reform push. If this is true, with the new majority in the Senate, let's
hope we see reform at the federal level, as well as the state level.
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