’03 Tort Reform Total Is 21 States And Counting

By Daniel Hays

NU Online News Service, July 15, 4:17 p.m. EDT?The head of a national group that tracks civil action tort legislation said 21 states have enacted such laws this year and three more are expected to.

“We believe there is a good chance, when all is said and done, that by year-end that 24 states will have enacted legislation,” said Sherman Joyce, president of the Washington-based American Tort Reform Association.

Mr. Joyce said the biggest area for change has come in medical liability law with limits enacted on pain and suffering awards.

According to ATRA, 2003 has been the most successful year for enactment of state civil justice reform legislation since 1995. The group’s report comes as ATRA completed its semiannual “Tort Reform Record”.

Mr. Joyce said the Record listed 20 states as already enacting laws, but the actual count was 21, because an Ohio statute dealing with medical liability did not take effect until early this year–not in 2002 as originally thought.

By comparison 19 tort revision laws were enacted by the conclusion of 1995.

Mr. Joyce said, in addition to those states that have already put through tort reforms, ATRA expects that Florida will pass a measure.

He noted that Republican Gov. Jeb Bush has “been adamant” about the need for change and the fact that the American Medical Association has put Florida at the top of a list of medical malpractice insurance crisis states.

In addition, Mr. Joyce said he expects Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack’s veto of tort legislation in that state will be overcome and that South Dakota will approve jury service reform.

Mr. Joyce said more action had come this year, particularly in medical liability, because legislators and governors were faced with a situation that was endangering access to health care “a life-and-death” issue.

There is also growing consumer awareness “of how our civil justice system hurts the economy,” Mr. Joyce said.

According to ATRA, the other 20 states that have enacted civil justice reforms include: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

“Policymakers across American were emboldened this year,” Mr. Joyce said. “The need to enact reforms has overcome the political muscle of the personal injury bar.”

ATRA’s Record lists state-by-state civil justice reforms passed since 1986, the year ATRA was founded.

The organization said that some states have passed sweeping, comprehensive reforms, led by Texas, which enacted a comprehensive law that includes joint and several liability reform, limits on noneconomic damages, medical liability reform and punitive damages reform.

Mr. Joyce noted that the Texas legislature is currently in special session to tackle asbestos litigation reform.

Other states that have passed comprehensive reforms include Arkansas, Idaho and West Virginia.

Colorado, ATRA said, became the fifth state to enact attorney retention “sunshine” legislation, which eliminates the “backroom” negotiations of contingency fee contracts between personal injury lawyers and government officials.

The new Colorado statute requires that government officials, who sign contracts with personal injury lawyers on a contingency fee basis, competitively bid those contracts and obtain legislative review of the terms of the contracts.

Two governors vetoed civil justice reform bills last week. Missouri Gov. Bob Holden vetoed a comprehensive bill.

ATRA noted that the Iowa legislature announced it has hired a law firm to challenge Gov. Vilsack’s line-item veto of several civil justice reform provisions in an omnibus regulatory reform package.

By the legislature’s interpretation, Gov. Vilsack improperly used a line-item veto that is only to be used to strike language from appropriations bills.

ATRA said this year’s legislative activity was driven, in part, by a sharp escalation in tort costs in the United States.

The group cited a study released by Tillinghast-Towers Perrin in February, which found tort costs increased 14.3 percent from 2000 to 2001, the largest single-year increase since 1986. The Towers Perrin study indicates total costs for 2001 at $205 billion or $721 per U.S. citizen, compared to $179 billion or $636 per U.S. citizen in 2000, ATRA said.

“There is no better indication of the problems with the system than the current medical liability crisis,” Mr. Joyce said. “The adverse litigation environment in many states and ever-larger jury awards are forcing doctors to give up specialty practices, leave the profession altogether or relocate to other states with more balanced litigation systems.”

Eight states this year have enacted medical liability reforms and another 17 have considered or are still considering legislation. States that have enacted medical liability reforms include Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. Florida is currently in special session to address its medical liability crisis, ATRA said.

This year in the Record, ATRA tracked a new category of legislation?jury service reform. The organization said that as jury service participation rates have declined and juries have become less and less representative of the community, there has been a new movement to boost participation rates by passing legislation to make it easier for citizens to serve.

Arizona, Louisiana, and Utah passed jury service reform legislation during 2003, and ATRA said it expects more states to follow suit.

A copy of the Record is available on the ATRA Web site, http:// www.atra.org.

ATRA, founded in 1986, describes itself as a broad based, bipartisan coalition of more than 300 businesses, corporations, municipalities, associations, and professional firms who support civil justice reform. Members include State Farm and New York Life Insurance.