CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association has commended Gov. Joe Manchin for signing into law a bill that will limit out-of-state plaintiffs from filing lawsuits in West Virginia.
House Bill 2956, dubbed the Venue Bill, was passed unanimously by the Legislature. Presiding judges will be allowed to determine if there is a better jurisdiction for out-of-state plaintiffs who file suits. The bill is a compromise that was negotiated by the WVTLA, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and other state business interests.
"Businesses were very concerned about the number of out-of-state lawsuits filed in our state courts," WVTLA President Jeffrey T. Jones said. "It was important for us to find a good solution that would limit out-of-state access to our courts, but not one that would make it harder for state residents and businesses to hold wrongdoers accountable.
"Limiting these out-of-state suits should never mean locking the courthouse doors for the citizens who live and own businesses here. This bill accomplishes that."
Jones said he was proud his group was able to work with the state Chamber, other business interests, House Speaker Rick Thompson, Del. Carrie Webster and Sen. Jeff Kessler "to put together a good bill that provides real civil justice reform and is in the best interests of our entire state."
However, Jones criticized the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for urging Manchin to veto the bill.
The U.S. Chamber contends the bill wasn't strong enough. The West Virginia Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber.
"The U.S. Chamber is being disingenuous in its opposition to this legislation," Jones said. "The version that passed is based on the very blueprint they offered when we first began negotiations. We followed their roadmap, and they agreed on the provisions of this bill repeatedly in our meetings.
"Now, they are opposing their own bill. Incredible!"
The U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform says the legislation will hurt the state's efforts to attract business.
"ILR's goal from the outset of the venue discussion in the last legislature has been to make sure that West Virginia courts -- paid for by West Virginia taxpayers -- are not clogged with out-of-state lawsuits," ILR President Lisa Rickard said Thursday. "Unfortunately, the venue bill passed by the Legislature failed to reach this goal."
ILR says the new law contains loopholes that make it significantly weaker than the 2003 venue statute which was struck down by the West Virginia Supreme Court last summer, and will encourage out-of-state plaintiffs to bring lawsuits that have no connection to West Virginia.
Jones counters that the U.S. Chamber wants a bill that would restrict West Virginians' access to the courts.
"They say that they will accept nothing other than the 2003 venue bill, a bill declared unconstitutional by the West Virginia Supreme Court and that the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear on appeal," he said. "That bill had already failed constitutional muster, but they wanted to waste lawmakers' time and taxpayers' money passing the same bad bill all over again."
Jones also noted that the WVTLA was not invited to participate in discussions on the 2003 bill.
"This just goes to show their arrogance and ignorance, not to mention how nonsensical their position really is," Jones said. "It's not about 'fixing' anything. The truth is that the U. S. Chamber would rather attack our state and call it a `judicial hellhole' than back the real solution that we put together.
"This law means that they can no longer claim that West Virginia was a judicial haven for anyone in the country wanting to file a lawsuit."
Jones said the large corporate interests represented by the U.S. Chamber don't care about making West Virginia's courts better.
"The only thing that matters to them is increasing their corporate profits at any cost, even at the expense of West Virginia citizens and businesses," he said. "The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association remains committed to strengthening our state's civil justice system and finding opportunities to make it better.
"However, those options should never include destroying the important laws that allow West Virginia workers, consumers and businesses to hold billion-dollar corporations accountable when they are harmed. Total corporate immunity must never come at the expense of West Virginia families and businesses."
Rickard dismissed Jones' comments about the U.S. Chamber.
"I see no productive purpose in responding to the kind of petty name-calling engaged in by the West Virginia Trail Lawyers Association," Rickard said. "Instead, ILR will continue doing all we can to improve the legal climate in West Virginia."