New speaker talks tort reform

By Chris Dickerson | Feb 2, 2007

CHARLESTON – New House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson says he knows frivolous lawsuits are a problem in West Virginia and that he doesn't rule anything out in terms of tort reform.

Speaking Tuesday to a breakfast meeting of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Thompson also said he hopes the Legislature passes a venue bill this session.

"Let me be clear," Thompson, D-Wayne, told the people in attendance at Tuesday's breakfast at the Marriott in Charleston. "Don't think that I'm not concerned about frivolous lawsuits. One frivolous lawsuit is one too many. I think we should do anything we can to limit those types of suits.

"But let's do so in such a way as to not shut people out of the courthouse and not allow them an equal chance at justice."

Thompson, a Lavalette attorney, also said he hopes a new venue bill is passed "that limits out-of-state people people from using our court system."

Venue reform is not a new topic in West Virginia.

A 2003 reform law intended to curb the forum shopping barred suits in West Virginia courts by those who do not live in West Virginia unless a "substantial part" of the acts or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred in the state or the plaintiff was unable to sue in another state. The law also required that plaintiffs satisfy the new venue requirements so as to prevent out-of-state plaintiffs from riding on the coattails of a plaintiff for whom venue is proper.

In the high-profile venue case of Morris v. Crown Equipment Corp., the law was applied to tell a plaintiff from Virginia, whose workplace injury occurred in Virginia on a forklift that was sold and used in Virginia while all witnesses and evidence were presumably in Virginia, that he could not sue the Ohio manufacturer in West Virginia simply because the distributor, a codefendant, was incorporated there.

But the state Supreme Court invalidated that 2003 law on June 29, 2006, saying that it discriminated against out-of-state residents under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the United States Constitution. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, where it was rejected.

When asked about tort reform in general, Thompson said any idea is open to discussion.

"Any system can be made better," he said. "I don't rule anything out. The problem is trying to get a bill to do what we need to do without interfering with the rights of the people.

"We just want a fair system that works for everyone."

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