EDITORIAL/Jackpot justice watch
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 1:00 AM
Lawsuits are being filed regularly with the intention of trying to overturn Mississippi's historic tort reform legislation enacted a decade ago in a grassroots effort led by the medical and business communities.
Trial lawyers have been circling, hoping to swoop in and reverse Mississippi's lawsuit abuse reform. In a case to go before the state Supreme Court, a circuit judge in Coahoma County ruled Mississippi's caps are unconstitutional in a $7.5 million verdict involving the wrongful death case of a 2-year-old in an apartment fire.
Mississippi, among other things, capped non-economic damages. To be sure, there are legitimate malpractice and other cases where negligence should be punished, but lawsuit abuse costs Mississippians jobs.
In another case, a Jasper County circuit judge ruled that Mississippi's tort reform caps are unconstitutional.
Expect more rulings like these, say defenders of tort reform, - mostly doctors, top business leaders and conservative elected officials - who gathered in Jackson last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the legislation which The Wall Street Journal at the time called the most comprehensive tort reform bill that any state has ever passed.
"These guys are trying to turn back what you've done," former Gov. Haley Barbour warned.
The Jasper County case won't be appealed because the defendant, a small oil company, couldn't afford the state's ridiculously high appeal bond (120 percent of the judgment), so that case will have no bearing outside of that jurisdiction.
Since tort reform, the number of lawsuits in Mississippi went from 10,617 in 2002 to a mere 3,551 in 2012. The change has been good for business.
"Doctors have fled or quit practicing, 71 insurance companies have pulled out, and a recent study by a local business group predicted the loss of 10,000 more jobs by 2009 without some legal reform," The Wall Street Journal opined.
The Yokohama Tire factory in West Point that's set to open in 2015 is proof that the tort reform laws are still necessary.
"I guarantee you that if these tort reform laws were not in place, they would not have located that factory in Mississippi," Gov. Phil Bryant said at the tort reform anniversary event.
Barbour, whose administration was responsible for pushing tort reform through, mentioned Toyota and its 2,000 jobs. He said the head of site selection had prevailed upon Mississippi leaders to pass tort reform.
The executive told Mississippi officials the company wouldn't be locating anywhere known for lawsuit abuse - and Mississippi was known at the time as the capital.
Caterpillar told state leaders that lawsuit abuse matters with existing plants.
Mississippi had a healthcare crisis before tort reform because doctors were leaving the state, closing their practices and new med school graduates couldn't afford insurance.
Barbour recalled the obstetrics ward in Kosciusko closing and the closure of the emergency room at Sharkey-Issaquena hospital because officials couldn't pay the liability insurance premiums. There was only one neurosurgeon between Jackson and Memphis.
Mass tort was a huge concern. In Jefferson County, there were more plaintiffs in mass tort lawsuits pending than the population of the entire county. "We had become a magnet for all these mass tort suits," Barbour said.
A drug store in Jefferson County commonly used to obtain jurisdiction was forced out of business. Tort reform changed that.
"Every small business in Mississippi was one lawsuit away from bankruptcy," Barbour said.
Legislative leaders are suspicious liberal members who favor the trial lawyers will attempt to work language into certain bills that will eventually undermine tort reform.
Let's make sure Mississippi remains open for business by being vigilant and preventing lawsuit abuse by protecting our gains.