CHARLESTON – Small and local businesses are a staple to communities across West Virginia, but many such businesses feel threatened by abusive lawsuits, which can be very costly even if they are meritless.

Fighting a frivolous lawsuit can be more expensive than settling out-of-court, and even just one successful lawsuit could lead to a business having to close its doors and let its employees go.

Some predatory personal injury lawyers count on this fact and file abusive lawsuits hoping the small business victim will settle – and thereby line the personal injury lawyers’ pockets – rather than opt for a trial the business cannot afford.

These are some of the types of concerns felt by local small business advocates, who met last week at a Wheeling forum hosted by West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse as the kickoff of the group’s Small Business Summer program.

The kickoff event was well attended by small business owners, community leaders, and elected officials representing the northern panhandle. Participants shared their concerns as small businesses in a very litigious environment, talked about reforms that could help to improve the business climate, and heard from WV CALA about what others are saying around the state.

Two key goals of Small Business Summer are to provide a forum to share information among small business leaders and to raise awareness about how lawsuit abuse hurts small businesses and their employees.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, West Virginia has more than 28,000 small businesses that employ nearly 300,000 people. Most of these businesses are very small, with 75.3 percent employing less than 20 employees.

More than one-third of small business owners have been sued according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform. Approximately seven in 10 small business owners say that a lawsuit would force them to reduce benefits for employees or hold back on hiring.

West Virginia’s economy is in trouble. Every new job created and every existing job is vital to our small towns and communities. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that West Virginia has been last in workforce participation for nearly 40 years. The American Tort Reform Foundation has named West Virginia to its ‘Judicial Hellhole’ list for more than 10 consecutive years.

One of the best ways small business owners can make sure the civil justice system is strong is to serve on a jury and support their employees when they are called upon to do so. Other important civic duties for everyone are to be educated voters and vocal advocates for fair courts.  Our legal system only works when we all participate.

When we work together to create jobs, not lawsuits, we can raise awareness about those who abuse the system to profit off the backs of small business owners and their employees. In doing so, we can make this summer, and every season, a time for small businesses to grow and provide needed jobs and services to our communities.

Thomas is Executive Director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. 

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