Gov. Barbour among keynotes at conference
Wednesday, May 7, 2014 1:00 PM
Former Gov. Haley R. Barbour will be among those keynoting a conference with business leaders in downtown Jackson next week marking the 10th anniversary of Mississippi's landmark tort reform legislation.
The event Wednesday at the Jackson Convention Center will discuss the history leading up to the 2004 legislation, as well as vigilance in protecting tort reform gains.
In a heated political fight a decade ago, the state Legislature became one of the first in the nation to place caps on non-economic (pain and suffering) and punitive damages. There is a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages on medical liability cases. Other civil cases have a $1 million cap.
When Barbour first ran for governor in 2003, his platform was creating more and better jobs and tort reform was a key component, he said.
"I knew we couldn't talk about job creation without talking about tort reform," he said. "When I ran for governor, every small business was a lawsuit away from bankruptcy. Our reputation for lawsuit abuse was well-earned, and the business community took notice."
Barbour said for three years the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Mississippi last for unfair legal climate.
"Businesses refused to locate in Mississippi, and existing companies were at risk of going under," he said.
In terms of healthcare in the state, the former governor said there was a "crisis" underway.
"Doctors were leaving the state for fear of being sued; hospitals were closing their emergency rooms and delivery rooms because they couldn't pay medical liability bills," he said. "Businesses wouldn't locate in Mississippi if their employees couldn't get quality healthcare."
And so the battle began in the state legislature.
"Speaker of the House Billy McCoy was strongly opposed to tort reform," Barbour explained the events leading up to the passage of the legislation. "He was adept at using House rules to keep a tort reform bill from being voted on."
He said the Senate had passed tort reform six different times but it was never voted on in the House.
"Ultimately, the Speaker allowed a 'test' vote, and the proponents of tort reform won by 20 votes," he said. "This occurred after the regular session of 2004 had adjourned, and I had called the legislature back into a special session on tort reform."
The bill came up for a vote and passed 78-39, a 2-to-1 margin.
"The law we passed was heralded by the Wall Street Journal as the 'most comprehensive tort reform legislation in the country' at that time," Barbour said. "It reduced insurance rates and improved the quality of healthcare in Mississippi by providing a fair playing field for our doctors and hospitals.
"The economic impacts are huge, as well," he continued. "Toyota in Blue Springs, Miss. has created thousands of jobs for Mississippians - jobs that would not have been created but for passage of strong tort reform. Other companies have followed suit."
Since the passage of tort reform, companies like GE and PACCAR have located operations in the state.
Barbour added, "Today, Mississippi's economy benefits from companies like those who would not have come here if we hadn't passed tort reform. It is symbolic of Mississippi being truly open for business."
Canton attorney Bob Montgomery was in the thick of the battle as he represented a medical insurance company that insured 80 percent of the doctors in the state.
He called the passage of the 2004 tort reform "a very significant event."
Montgomery said the battle began in 2002 during a special session that lasted a couple of months aimed at providing relief for physicians, healthcare providers, nursing homes and nurses.
That special session put the wheels in motion that led to the landmark reform, which Montgomery had a hand in drafting.
"2002-2004 has substantially stabilized the state," he explained. "Not only in passage of the legislation - (judges) have been very moderate and cautious going forward."
He said the atmosphere is not necessarily friendly, but it is stable.
"Business people, insurance companies - everybody - they just want to have something that's predictable," Montgomery said. "The highs and lows we had prior to that time were totally unsettling.
"Go back to the medical profession," he continued. "As far as (malpractice) policies are concerned, they are back at the 1996-1997 levels, so that's proof in the pudding so to speak."
One of the leading groups against tort reform passage was the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, which now goes by Mississippi Association for Justice.
Attempts to contact them were unsuccessful as of press time.
Medical professionals have benefitted tremendously from tort reform, both the Mississippi State Medical Association and Mississippi Hospital Association say.
MSMS President Dr. James A. Rish of Tupelo echoed Barbour's statements that the state was in a healthcare crisis.
"Malpractice insurance companies were not willing to write policies in the Mississippi market, physicians were leaving the state due to the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance premiums if able to obtain any insurance at all, and more importantly patients were having to drive long distances often out of state to get the care they needed," he said.
He added, "Since passage of tort reform the number of frivolous lawsuits have dramatically decreases, and the medical malpractice market has stabilized as has premium costs."
Doctors' insurance premiums are around $3,500 but were as high as $10,000 prior to tort reform.
Timothy H. Moore, president/CEO of the MHA, said they continue to work on national tort reform efforts.
"MHA supports supports a liability system that relies upon evidence-based standards, reduces frivolous lawsuits, and produces prompt and fair compensation for injured patients," he said.
Since its passing 10 years ago, the state's tort reform legislation has never been challenged in a higher court. In Ohio and Illinois, tort reform legislation was thrown out - something Barbour said will be a constant threat to Mississippi's own law.
"I am proud to celebrate with many others what we accomplished 10 years ago by passing the Tort Reform Law of 2004," he said. "However, I also recognize that with each passing day, tort reform faces risks from those who maintain opposition to a fair and balanced justice system.
"In states like Ohio and Illinois, courts threw out tort reform laws adopted by their legislatures, so I recognize that we cannot rest on our laurels," he continued. "In the coming elections, it is critical we elect officials who will support and strengthen the civil justice laws passed 10 years ago."
The Tort Reform: After Ten Years Conference will begin at 2 p.m. on May 14 at the Jackson Convention Center. A reception will follow at 5 p.m. at the Jackson Convention Center.
There is no cost to attend, but registration is required. To register, visit www.msmec.com.