CHARLESTON – A recent ad campaign meant to highlight the difficulties businesses face because of West Virginia's legal climate has created a firestorm of controversy.
The television and print ad campaign started last week. The first ad is a series of testimonials from business owners and workers who are concerned about the ability of their own business to survive in a state ranked last for having the worst legal climate in the country for business.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce are behind the ad campaign. The Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber.
The campaign will continue statewide for the next several weeks. A print version of the ad appears inside this edition of The Record.
After the ads began airing, the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association immediately pushed to have the ads pulled, calling them false and misleading.
"Once again West Virginia is under attack by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the billion-dollar corporate interests that it represents," said Jeff Jones, president of the WVTLA. "The claims in its new television ad are nothing short of outright lies in its ongoing effort to advance its political agenda of destroying consumer protection laws and providing total immunity to corporations who cheat consumers and injure workers.
"It's long past time for the Chamber to tell the truth, and the truth is that it does not cost more to do business here and that our court system is not the worst in the country. Independent analyses confirm that. The truth is that the U. S. Chamber doesn't care about West Virginia consumers, West Virginia workers or West Virginia jobs. The only thing that matters to the U. S. Chamber is protecting corporate profits at any cost."
Then, the WVTLA's press release included some of the information included in the ad, followed by its contradicting statements refuting the claims.
One example: The ads say West Virginia has "the worst lawsuit climate in the country." That statement is based on a March study released by the ILR placing West Virginia last among states for its legal climate. The 2006 State Liability Systems Ranking Study also said West Virginia courts are among the least fair and reasonable jurisdictions in the country. West Virginia ranked last in nine of the 12 study categories.
But the WVTA says West Virginia ranked 29th among the 39 states with two-tiered court systems for the number of lawsuits filed per capita in 2003, according to the National Center for State Courts. And two-thirds of those states, the WVTLA says, had more lawsuits based on population than West Virginia.
Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber, said all of the West Virginians in the ad – including Roberts himself – speak from first-hand experience.
"We all care about the future of our state," he said. "We want to create a climate that has a reputation for being fair and an environment where jobs can be created.
"If we (the state Chamber and the WVTLA) could have a reasonable conversation about such important issues as some kind of rule for collateral sources, limits on punitive damages, some standards for expert witnesses, medical criteria for asbestos and silica awards …
"In our offices, we have maps showing which states have enacted these types of things. And not one of those friggin' things has been enacted here."
Roberts those are the types of issues that, he thinks, would help the state and still give the members of the WVTLA room to do their jobs.
"It seems to me that it should be abundantly clear that West Virginia does OK when the energy industry is doing OK," he said. "Natural gas is down, coal is down, we're losing manufacturing jobs, and unemployment is up."
Roberts then cited a recent NPR story about Detroit and all of the ripple-effect problems that city has had as the automobile industry struggles.
Roberts says Gov. Joe Manchin's administration has made strides in recent years, including insurance reform, medical malpractice reforms and improvements to the workers' compensation program.
"I just believe we have a very limited window to do something about this," he said. "In Detroit, the auto industry is down, so everything is down. One business owner was saying he didn't think he'd be able to send his daughter to college because his business had run upon hard times and he had to lay off all of his employees.
"I'm afraid that is where we are headed if we can't turn this around."