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WISE, UNDERWOOD AT ODDS ON TORT REFORM

Between rounds of golf and well-stocked receptions, those attending

 

last month's business summit at the world-class Greenbrier resort spent a

 

lot of time whining about a shared foe: the lawyers who represent

 

plaintiffs in civil lawsuits.

 

 

The need for "tort reform" became a common theme at the

 

  • ummit: Greedy lawyers swamp the state's courts with meritless suits; huge
  •  

    jury verdicts drive away good businesses and caring doctors; "bad public

     

    officials," especially certain Supreme Court justices and circuit judges,

     

    let these lawyers get away with it.

     

     

    The summit's business leaders, lobbyists and corporate lawyers invited

     

    the leading gubernatorial candidates in to ask their opinions on this and

     

    other subjects. Gov. Cecil Underwood lined himself alongside the

     

  • ummit's stance.
  •  

     

    The governor reminded the summit that he has touted "tort

     

    reform" during several of his State of the State addresses. He also

     

    cited how he has pushed legislation to curb damages awarded by juries and

     

    toughen the standards for evidence that plaintiffs must meet.

     

     

    "Because I stood up with your help and proposed tort

     

    reform, the trial lawyers are generating hundreds of thousands of

     

    dollars for his campaign," Underwood said, referring to Democratic

     

    challenger Rep. Bob Wise, himself a lawyer.

     

     

    Underwood agreed with summit leaders that lawsuits hurt the

     

  • tate's business climate and are part of "what's wrong with West Virginia.
  •  

    He blamed the defeat of his tort proposals on a handful of

     

    legislators who are also lawyers, alleging that personal interests

     

    prompted them to "stand in the way of reform."

     

     

    "Divided loyalties are ice water for economic development," the

     

    governor said.

     

     

    When asked for his opinion, Wise adopted a different stance from

     

    his GOP rival.

     

     

    "This is one of those issues where if one side puts forth its case, and

     

    then the other side puts forth its case, we can have a great debate,"

     

    Wise said.

     

     

    Wise also called tort reform "one of those

     

    third-rail issues" that take second place in West Virginia to mountaintop

     

    removal mining and similar topics. "It hasn't gone anywhere," he said.

     

     

    Wise said he does support some reform proposals. He

     

    touted mediation, where both sides in a lawsuit sit down and talk toward a

     

    resolution with the help of a trained mediator. He also wants lawyers

     

    fined by judges and disciplined by the State Bar when they file frivolous

     

    lawsuits.

     

     

    Wise questioned whether trial lawyers form such important

     

  • upport for him as Underwood alleged. Lawyers who defend people and
  •  

    companies targeted in lawsuits also support his campaign, he said. They

     

    include his campaign manager and co-chairman of the state Democratic

     

    Party, who is a partner in a Charleston defense firm.

     

     

    The views expressed by Underwood and Wise at the summit

     

    generally reflect the public policy stances each has taken in office.

     

    Underwood has tackled the notion of tort reform

     

    during most of his term. Wise has coolly received proposed changes

     

    to the civil justice system.

     

     

    Underwood did not mention tort reform in his most

     

    recent State of the State address, and he did not introduce legislation on

     

    the subject during this year's session. But he pushed a sweeping proposal

     

    with the 1998 Legislature that targeted most aspects of the civil justice

     

    debate:

     

     

    - Underwood supported changing how lawyers and clients reach

     

    "contingency fee" agreements, in which clients pledge a percentage of any

     

    damage award as payment to the lawyer. Underwood wanted such

     

    arrangements set in writing before a case proceeds. He also wanted the fee

     

    to be based on the damage award: the larger the award or settlement, the

     

    lower the percentage the lawyer receives as payment.

     

     

    - Underwood has embraced much of the state Chamber of Commerce's

     

  • tance regarding damage awards. Underwood's 1998 proposal would have
  •  

    curbed "punitive damages," or money meant to punish the defendant, be it a

     

    business or person, for their conduct. For corporate defendants, the

     

    limits would have been based on the company's size.

     

     

    - Underwood wants to similarly limit damages meant to compensate

     

    plaintiffs for such intangible things as "pain and suffering." They are

     

    called non-economic damages. Underwood has proposed caps

     

    proportionate to the amount awarded for such "economic damages" as lost

     

    wages or medical bills.

     

     

    - Underwood also wanted to toughen the standard of evidence that

     

    plaintiffs must meet to ask for punitive damages. His proposal would have

     

    also changed just how defendants are found liable when a lawsuit targets

     

    more than one person or business.

     

     

    Wise has usually voted against such proposals in Congress.

     

    Further, he has supported measures which would benefit the people who file

     

    lawsuits, as opposed to those they target:

     

     

    - Wise voted against a House bill introduced this year aimed at

     

    limiting damages reached against small businesses, defined as having 25 or

     

    fewer employees.

     

     

    - Wise voted against the most recent bill involving "product

     

    liability" lawsuits. Such suits target defective products. The legislation

     

    focused on certain types of goods and when they were made, setting time

     

    limits on when suits could be filed. After voting against the 1996

     

    measure, Wise also voted against overriding President Clinton's

     

    veto of the bill. The override effort failed.

     

     

    - Wise voted against last year's bill to protect tobacco

     

    companies from lawsuits targeting cigarettes and their health effects.

     

     

    - Wise did vote for one "tort reform" measure, a

     

    1999 bill to limit damages and liability in matters involving the Year

     

    2000 computer problem.

     

     

    - Wise voted for a bill passed by the House last year that would

     

    allow managed-care patients, or their survivors, to sue their health care

     

    plans. The plaintiffs would have to prove that a negligent decision by

     

    plan officials regarding health care resulted in needless injury or death.

     

     

    To contact staff writer Law-rence Messina, use e-mail or call 348-4869.

     

     


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