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December 13, 2003

This year, Legislature must close tort reform loopholes

This letter was published in the Sun Herald on December 13, 2003.

Mississippi's battle to end lawsuit abuse in our courtrooms (also known as tort reform) is about creating a business and legal climate in our state where working families will have an abundance of job opportunities, access to health care, and modestly priced insurance rates. It's not about taking away compensation from people who are entitled to justice. It's about the future of our great state.

Even though changes were made to Mississippi's legal rules to halt some lawsuit abuses, enough loopholes remain for greedy personal injury attorneys to do untold damage.

Clever personal injury attorneys can still shift lawsuits between regions of the state for the sole reason that some Mississippi courtrooms have a long history of awarding outrageous verdicts for frivolous lawsuits.

It's unfortunate that our state's legal rules still allow "venue shopping" in civil cases. Venue shopping has nothing to do with fairness or justice for those who have been wronged but rather it is about driving up the odds for awards of $10 million or greater, which only line the pockets of personal injury attorneys.

"Venue shopping" plays a key part in hurting Mississippi's job-creation efforts in rural areas. Total venue reform is a reasonable way to eliminate this loophole in our legal rules. Alcorn County cases should stay in Alcorn County courtrooms, not be moved to Jefferson County courtrooms where a personal injury attorney is almost certainly guaranteed a huge payday.

Greedy personal injury attorneys can still easily combine unrelated lawsuits and unrelated plaintiffs together to create a "mass tort" of thousands of plaintiffs, which is more likely to result in outrageous verdicts.

It's unfortunate that Mississippi's legal rules still allow the practice of combining so many unrelated people and businesses into one lawsuit. An even more startling fact is that non-Mississippians can be included in these lawsuits, bottling-up our courts for several years.

Mississippi's courthouses are intended for Mississippians, not out-of-state residents. This legal practice does not further the cause of justice for our citizens, but rather further lines the pockets of personal injury lawyers.

Have you wondered why access to health care is hard to come by in Mississippi's rural areas? The combination of thousands of unrelated plaintiffs into one mass lawsuit is a key reason why. Only sensible joinder reform will eliminate this specific lawsuit abuse and bring back a sense of sanity to our courtrooms.

The legal reforms enacted by the Legislature last fall were a remarkable first step toward fixing the breakdowns in our court system, but lawsuit abuse still remains. More needs to be done.

Mississippians must encourage the 2004 Legislature to finish the job it started last fall. Our courts should be halls of justice where all parties are responsibly treated, not places where personal injury lawyers can extort millions of dollars from innocent businesspeople.

We want the nation to know that doing business in our state is smart. We want manufacturers and businesses to set up shop inside our state borders and employ our people. We also want businesses to know that should they be sued our state's civil justice system will treat them fairly. Only a complete end to lawsuit abuse through legal reform legislation will accomplish this goal.

Steve Browning is executive director for Mississippians for Economic Progress.

© Copyright 2003, The Sun Herald. All Rights Reserved.

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