Roberts

Jones

Cohen

CHARLESTON – With the 2007 session just days away, groups with an eye on legal reform issues are talking about what they'd like to see done by the state Legislature.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is calling on state leaders to continue what it calls the state's economic resurgence by focusing efforts on seven key solutions in 2007.

"The Chamber's seven solutions are ones that, if implemented, will advance West Virginia's economic competitiveness, improve the state's business capacity and offer new employment opportunities to our citizens," Chamber President Steve Roberts said. "This formula for success will help propel our state to new heights of prosperity and progress."

Second on the Chamber's list is "meaningful judicial reforms."

"West Virginia must enact meaningful judicial reforms so employers can feel secure operating in this state under a fair and balanced legal system," a state Chamber news release says. "West Virginia needs to come in line with nearly every other state and enact fair reforms. A fair and just legal system is the hallmark of any progressive society."

The Chamber missive also addresses asbestos and silica lawsuits.

"West Virginia needs to enact reforms that will stem the tidal wave of asbestos and silica mass litigation and ensure that injured individuals are diagnosed based on established medical criteria and by an attending physician," the statement reads. "These reforms will help to unclog the system for those who are truly impaired or injured."

Also on the Chamber's list is investing in "additional efforts to help provide employers with a trained and skilled work force who possess the knowledge and capabilities needed in today's work place," reforming the health care system and stemming growing health care costs, reducing the cost of doing business in the state by reducing workers' compensation costs and business taxes, simplifying permit processes and funding basic infrastructure and investing in new advanced infrastructure.

"Enactment of these recommendations in 2007, particularly those dealing with lawsuit reforms, health care cost containment and regulatory relief, are vital to further advance the state's economic growth and create a more stable and competitive environment for businesses and professionals to operate, invest and employ West Virginians," Roberts said. "Enactment and implementation of these policies will substantially improve the state's business climate and help make West Virginia 'open for business.'"

The president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association says his group has a two-fold legislative focus.

"First, we want to preserve the right for West Virginians who have fair and just claims to be able to access our civil justice system, while working with the Legislature and the governor's office to find ways to improve it by eliminating frivolous lawsuits and defenses," WVTLA President Jeff Jones said. "Frivolous filings are bad for everyone, but you don't eliminate them by destroying the entire civil justice system."

The second part of the WVTLA plan, Jones said, is working on legislation to help West Virginia consumers.

"These bills include one that will prohibit insurance corporations from using your credit scores to determine what your premium will be, and instead rates will be based on the individual's claims history," he said. "Another is a bill that allows consumers to shop for the best insurance policy. Under current law, an insurer can deny coverage or charge you a higher rate just because multiple companies have ran reports on your claims' history. There's a difference between being a policy hopper and being a good shopper.

"We also believe that the Insurance Commission's consumer advocate should be involved in every aspect of the Commission's work which involves consumers -- and that includes an active role when insurance rates are reviewed and approved."

Jones added that the "Constitution guarantees that any person who is injured by the misconduct and negligence of others can get justice in our courtrooms -- even when taking on the most wealthy, powerful corporate interests."

"It's important for West Virginia to have strong consumer protection laws that ensure that big corporations can be held accountable when they refuse to pay fair and just insurance claims, produce unsafe products, pollute our environment, put their employees into dangerous workplaces or swindle employees out of their retirement."

Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the state need more civil justice reforms.

"Preventing the invasion of personal injury lawyers and their out-of-state plaintiffs with venue reform is critical," he said. "A Sunshine law would hold public officials like Attorney General Darrell McGraw accountable for his questionable hiring practices. And junk science compromises the integrity of our legal system, like the 'medical evidence' presented by personal injury lawyers to a West Virginia court from a doctor who does not exist.

"Employers will create jobs elsewhere unless these issues are addressed."

The legislative session begins Jan. 10, which is the day Gov. Joe Manchin will outline his legislative plans in the annual State of the State Address.

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