CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are butting heads again, this time over an ad campaign.
The U.S. Chamber began airing a television ad this week contending that state "trial lawyer legislators won't crack down on lawsuit abuse, allowing their fellow trial lawyers to exploit our legal system." A print ad echoes a similar sentiment.
The trial lawyers group, however, says the Chamber is misleading West Virginians with a "phony, hypocritical television ad."
The ad, which opens with a neon "Open" sign in a window over a reflection of the state Capitol dome. Then, the neon sign flickers out.
"When it comes to attracting jobs and business to West Virginia, some politicians like to tell a happy story," the narrator begins. But our state continues to struggle because of a broken legal system."
Then, the ad features photos of Del. Carrie Webster and Sen. Jeff Kessler, judiciary chairs of their respective chambers. Both also are attorneys.
"Trial lawyers legislators won't crack down on lawsuit abuse, allowing their fellow trial lawyers to exploit our legal system," the narrator says. "Please call your state legislators and tell them passing phony reforms won't make West Virginia open for business."
The WVTLA condemned the Chamber "for again attacking West Virginia and recent civil justice reform laws passed by the state Legislature" and said the ad is the latest attack in the Chamber's "unrelenting effort to trick West Virginia lawmakers into giving corporations total immunity when they harm state residents."
"The U. S. Chamber's television ad is claiming that we passed phony reform bills, but let's really talk about who's being phony here," WVTLA President Jeff Jones said. "This ad purportedly represents the opinions of West Virginians.
"It talks about 'our state' and 'our legal system,' but the group behind the ad represents the special interests of billion-dollar national and multi-national corporations -- not West Virginians. It's not even the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, but the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington D. C."
Earlier this month, Jones and the WVTLA criticized the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for urging Gov. Joe Manchin to veto House Bill 2956, dubbed the Venue Bill. It was passed unanimously by the Legislature.
Under the law, 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.
The U.S. Chamber contends the bill wasn't strong enough. The West Virginia Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber.
"Both were compromise bills worked out by the WVTLA, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and other state business interests," he said. "The U. S. Chamber was involved in the negotiations on both bills. Both bills passed the legislature unanimously and were signed into law by Gov. (Joe) Manchin.
"I demand to know which bill the Chamber believes is 'phony,' and why -- if either bill was as bad as the U. S. Chamber claims -- it couldn't get a single legislator to vote against them? Surely an organization as important as the U. S. Chamber could have mustered at least one no vote against either one of these bills."
Larry Akey, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform, dismissed the WVTLA's comments.
"It's the same tired charges they trot out every time they can't find something constructive to say," Akey said Thursday.
The ILR maintains that the legislation will hurt the state's efforts to attract business. It 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.
"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 told The Record last week. "Unfortunately, the venue bill passed by the Legislature failed to reach this goal."
Rickard also 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 last week. "Instead, ILR will continue doing all we can to improve the legal climate in West Virginia."
Webster and Kessler, in turn, expressed disappointment in the U.S. Chamber.
"I'm personally disappointed that they're pulling theses tactics," Webster said. "I think if you speak the business community, they will tell you that I was more accessible and more open and more willing to try to figure out solutions than they expected and than some have been in the past."
Kessler called the Chamber's charges absurd.
"It's absolute phony," he said. "They know it's not true. I've talked to many lobbyists about it because, of course, the (venue) bill was negotiated in the House, and I had absolutely no input on it. …
"I think what the Chamber is doing is dishonorable. It's no way to get legislation passed and accomplished. Your word is your honor when you're a lobbyist, and I think they broke their word and have no honor. A lobbyist who doesn't tell the truth doesn't have any credibility.
"I can tell you for a fact that the U.S. Chamber has lost credibility with most elements of the Legislature."