Trial Lawyers and Democracy: Part 2

David Baria Op Ed

Here we are in the middle of "tort reform," Round 2. Unfortunately, your guess is a good as mine where this will all end up. Everyone is aware that a med-mal bill was signed by the Governor on October 5, 2002 after 33 days of tedious Conference Committee meetings. The bill was amazingly dissimilar to anything MTLA leadership dreamt would have passed. Let's hope that it is not a harbinger of what will come out of the next phase.

The Senate began the general tort reform portion of the special session by passing out a horrible piece of legislation aimed at insulating banks from common law liability for fraud and insulating businesses from liability for punitive damages by capping them. The Senate bill was quickly killed by the House Special tort study committee chaired by Percy Watson (D.-Hattiesburg). However, like the venerable Hydra, both the banking language and punitive caps are still floating around. This was due, at least in part, to the Speaker's and Governor's apparent desire to appease the banking community.

The latest word concerning the direction this juggernaut will take is that the Senate wants no bill, so the process will end and the legislature will go home. Forgive me if I don't believe it. We heard the same refrain too many times to mention when the conferees were meeting concerning the med-mal bill. One part was true- the Senate didn't want a bill unless it was their own, and they got it! However, the environment is different with regard to general tort reform because nobody should care much about protecting Firestone, WorldCom and WalMart. We shall see.

You should know that MTLA did everything in our power to: (1) negotiate compromise legislation which would address the doctors' "crisis;" and (2) defeat the med-mal bill which ultimately passed. There were intense lobbying efforts, TV and radio commercials, fact sheets, Press Releases, personal calls and offers of sex. The "offers of sex" is a joke of course, though it was discussed. Several MTLA members hired some very good lobbyists who worked with Ayres Haxton and on behalf of the MTLA I thank them. MTLA members from all over the state were routinely seen at the Capitol. A meager "thank you" is insufficient to you, but is all I have to offer. Pam Johnson did an outstanding job of helping me get our message to the press and I want to publicly thank Al Felder for his commitment to raise the money for her salary.

There are many other thank yous to be made. There are those few Senators who stood against an overwhelming majority and voted the will of the people. It is a losing battle in a Senate controlled by corporate interests and presided over by the soon to be ex-Lt. Governor Tuck. Obviously, there are more friends of the people in the House. Nevertheless, the vote is very close in the House and a lot of its members need to find other jobs next fall.

The med-mal battle is lost, but the tort reform war is not. The people may yet prevail. MTLA will survive to fight another day and will need to be ready for the regular session in January.