By Steve Roberts
CHARLESTON -- West Virginia has made good strides in the past few years to improve its business climate and to help create opportunities for more West Virginians.
Much of this good work has been accomplished because of the leadership and fortitude of our elected officials and because state residents have spoken up that "enough is enough."
One group who has spoken the loudest over the past few years is the state's employer community. The men and women who employ West Virginians have stepped up to the plate and outlined what is needed to address problems with our state laws and to improve our judicial system. Few groups have shown more dedication and desire to bring forth solutions that will make our state a better place.
However, even though progress has been made, West Virginia still has much more work to do to make it truly open for business. One area that is in need of the dire improvement involves ending our reputation as a lawsuit friendly state. Our state is out of step with nearly every other state in that we have not enacted comprehensive reforms in the areas of civil justice and tort law.
Public opinion is clearly in support of addressing the problem of frivolous lawsuits and our unfavorable legal climate. Even the head of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association recognizes this.
In an article in the March 29, 2006, edition of the Charleston Daily Mail, President Harvey Peyton said: "If you went down to a jury panel and took 100 people and asked them if they thought there was a problem with frivolous lawsuits, 80 would raise their hands."
I couldn't agree more with this statement. Public opinion polls consistently reveal that 80 percent or more of the state's population is concerned about our lawsuit environment.
So, the question I have for Mr. Peyton is, "What does the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association think should be done to respond to the public's concerns?"
I will be interested to find out this. Well, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has answers and solutions. The state's business community has been advocating for the enactment of specific reforms in our civil justice laws so West Virginia is no longer burdened with the blemish of being a "tort hell state"…no longer sidelined for new business investment….and no longer saddled by a lack of good paying, good benefit job opportunities. Our changes would send a clear and convincing signal that West Virginia is no longer heaven for lawsuit filers.
Employers large and small tell me every day about the problems and costs they are having associated with unnecessary and trumped up lawsuits. This situation is eating in to their ability to operate and employ West Virginians.
No one is benefiting from this situation, other than a small handful of trial lawyers. Mr. Peyton and his colleagues don't want any one to talk about this. Worse, they get downright mean when you talk about the need to change West Virginia's lawsuit climate. Don't take my word for it, just read Mr. Peyton's threatening remarks in the Daily Mail: "If Steve Roberts was to come to my office and call my oldest son, who practices law, unscrupulous, unethical and greedy, I'll punch him in the nose and throw him down the steps."
Frankly, it is a little disconcerting that the head of the state trial lawyers group is freely and publicly threatening me with assault and bodily harm.
Are all trial lawyers petty and hostile? No. Most are honorable members of the bar who represent their clients with conviction and duty. Bottom line, the problem really isn't lawyers; the problem is our state's out of step laws and judicial decisions that are aiding a proliferation of lawsuits and plaguing small businesses with lawsuit fears and high legal costs.
So, we shouldn't be tossing around threats or being bombastic for the media. We should be bringing forward solutions to make West Virginia a better place for people to live, work and retire. That is what will get West Virginia out of the bottom of so many rankings and make a real difference in the lives of good, hard working and decent West Virginians.
Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.