Cohen

By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- How dare they? Fortune Magazine's 25th annual edition of "America's Most Admired Companies" (March 19) includes a special ad section titled "Missouri, Open for Business."

What?! Isn't that West Virginia's new motto? Who gave Missouri a license to hijack those words from our highway signs?

"A raft of new legislation ... is sparking a business renaissance," the piece proclaims, making reference to Gov. Matt Blunt having campaigned in 2004 on legal reform.

West Virginia lawmakers generally don't move their bills on watercraft like Missourians may, but clearly something is giving them an edge in job creation.

And job creation is what is key to the well-being of West Virginia workers and their families. Jobs put our cars and pickups on the road, gas them up, and load them with groceries. A loss of jobs in West Virginia can put those cars and pickups on the road for another reason, too –- when people have to move to other states for better job opportunities.

While it's flattering to see one of West Virginia's most prominent companies, Toyota, listed in Fortune as "America's Best Car Company," it's less heartening to learn Toyota is creating 2,000 new jobs in Mississippi.

Of course, it is surely not lost on industry observers that the Magnolia State has taken, perhaps, the boldest steps of any in recent years to fix their broken lawsuit system.

These same observers see in West Virginia this year a quarter-billion-dollar-plus damages verdict against one of the nation's largest natural gas producers, eight times more than the state's previous high in awarding damages. The result? Hundreds of jobs with a projected annual payroll of $20 million are in jeopardy.

They saw the plant manager for a leading global manufacturer explain his company's decision to close operations in West Virginia on the state having "the nation's worst legal environment." Reform of the lawsuit system, he declared, "is urgently needed to prevent additional businesses from leaving the state."

West Virginia's tag as the only state in the U.S. to be a "judicial hellhole" may help explain why, nationally, more businesses are being born than dying, but West Virginia, despite its Open for Business declaration, is bucking the trend. The latest figures show more than 5,100 firms shutting their doors compared to 3,900 launches.

Missouri may be the Show Me State, but employers clearly see West Virginia as the Sue Me State. Missouri may have co-opted Open for Business. Let's just hope the copy on West Virginia's highway signs doesn't morph into "Open for Lawsuits."

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a nonprofit citizen watchdog group interested in a variety of civil justice issues. For more informatoin about the group, visit www.WVJusticeWatch.org or write to P.O. Box 127, Charleston, WV 25321.

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