Roberts

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's Board of Directors has unveiled 29 recommendations -- including legal reforms -- that it says would "greatly advance West Virginia's capability to generate business investment and employment growth."

The 29 policy recommendations are part of the Chamber's policy development process for the 2007 legislative session. Among the key issues addressed are legal reforms and asbestos/silica lawsuit limits. Other key topics addressed include business tax reform and relief, legal reforms, transportation funding, health care reforms, workplace wellness proposals and small business development incentives.

"Jobs continue to be the number one issue on the minds of West Virginians, and the Chamber's policy papers would help to provide more good-paying jobs to West Virginians," Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber, said in a press release.

He said enactment of these recommendations, particularly those dealing with lawsuit reform and business taxation relief, are needed to further advance the state's economic growth and to create a more stable and competitive environment for businesses and professionals to operate, invest and employ West Virginians.

"Enactment and implementation of these policies will substantially improve the state's business climate and truly make West Virginia 'open for business,'" Roberts said, invoking Gov. Joe Manchin's slogan for the state.

Speaking on the need for comprehensive civil justice reform, the Chamber says West Virginia has taken the first steps in addressing the issue. The policy paper notes that Manchin and lawmakers passed reform bills in 2005 and 2006 that, among other things, eliminate third-party suits against insurance companies and clarifying grounds for a deliberate intent suit.

But, the Chamber says, more is needed.

"Additional reforms still must be passed to bring West Virginia into step with the rest of the nation," the Chamber writes. "These include removing collateral source restrictions, limiting punitive damages and placing higher limitations on joint and several liability.

"West Virginia's system of largely uncontrolled lawsuits and activist judges has hindered business investment opportunities and has hurt employers in their ability to conduct business, employ people and grow in our state. Without enactment of additional meaningful civil justice – or 'tort' – reforms, West Virginia will be at a continued disadvantage in the ability to promote itself as being truly 'open for business.'"

The Chamber notes that an in-state study shows how big the problem has become.

"The empirical evidence is overwhelming that West Virginia's civil justice system results in significant negative impacts on the economic health of the state," according to a Civil Justice Committee Report of the Defense Trial Counsel of West Virginia. "While the studies reviewed acknowledged that civil justice is not the most significant factor affecting the continuous economic problems faced by West Virginia, it is clear that West Virginia's civil justice (system) is a consistent drag on economic growth and is a factor contributing to economic woes."

The Chamber also focuses on asbestos and silica lawsuits, noting mass litigation in those areas and how the state has become a "favorable forum" for filing asbestos claims and how it likely will be a magnet for silica claims.

"Currently in West Virginia, people with serious asbestos-related illnesses, who need immediate help, must get in line with thousands of plaintiffs who are not sick/impaired and who may never be," the Chamber writes. "The current asbestos litigation system is broken and is hurting victims, workers, businesses and economic development in West Virginia."

The Chamber report also mentions the current "screening process" to determine asbestosis or silicosis.

"Lawyers are hiring doctors who have no relationship with the exposed worker," the paper says. "These doctors often diagnose workers without even meeting them often on the basis of medical and occupational histories and x-rays taken by individuals who are not properly trained and without appropriate oversight by medical professionals."

Legislation to establish minimum standards, the Chamber says, would bring integrity to the process. That includes requiring a doctor with a physician-patient relationship to diagnose the problem.

On another topic, the Chamber is pushing for non-partisan judicial elections or merit selection.

West Virginia is one of only seven states where members of the state Supreme Court run in partisan elections. Many states also have taken partisan politics out of the selection or election of judges in lower courts, too.

"Overdue reform that would move West Virginia beyond the partisan politics of the 20th century would only require an act of the Legislature, if legislators are courageous enough to let candidates for our highest court stand on their reputations instead of their party affiliations," the Chamber writes.

The Chamber's policy papers were developed by committees and adopted last week by the Board of Governors.

"The West Virginia Chamber prides itself on being a solution-oriented organization, one ready with forward progressive solutions that will help to make more West Virginians healthier, wealthier and better educated," Roberts said. "This should be the goal of all West Virginia's leaders, and adoption of our policy papers would help to move our state in this direction."

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