CHARLESTON – A new survey shows that Americans believe lawsuit abuse is a problem that hurts the nation's economy.

Results of the poll, released Wednesday by the American Tort Reform Association and a group called Sick of Lawsuits, show that 89 percent of those surveyed say lawsuit abuse is a problem, and 69 percent says it is a "major" or "big" problem. The results also showed that 83 percent believe the current liability system needs to be improved.

Locally, legal groups had mixed opinions of the findings.

Richie Heath, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the survey figures are overwhelming.

The results of the survey are clear," he said. "Americans believe that lawsuit abuse is a serious problem, and they want to see lawmakers do something about it.

"With the election right around the corner, voters on both sides of the aisle want to support local candidates that back meaningful legal reforms.

The president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, meanwhile, condemned the results.

"This so-called study isn't news," Scott Blass said Wednesday. "It's business as usual from the American Tort Reform Association. Its previous studies, including its annual judicial hellhole report, have been widely discredited by both academics and independent groups. This study is just more of the same."

Blass called the study "nothing more than propaganda" designed to scare West Virginia voters into giving up their constitutional right to trial by jury and provide immunity for corporations that break the law.

"Here's the truth," Blass said. "ATRA was created for one purpose -- lobbying for immunity when corporations break the law and risk the lives and bank accounts of West Virginia consumers, workers and business owners.

"Independent analyses show that, despite what ATRA claims, lawsuits are not an issue for business owners, West Virginia ranks just 39th in the number of lawsuits filed per capita and more than $13 billion in new business investments have been made since 2005."

Heath countered.

"These numbers should hit home especially hard in West Virginia, which has suffered greatly from its reputation as a judicial hellhole," he said. "It's also no coincidence that West Virginia consistently ranks as one of the worst states in the nation for job creation.

"Hopefully, our state lawmakers will take notice of this important data and finally work toward passing the meaningful reforms that a large majority of voters support."

The ATRA study, released Wednesday, surveyed 1,013 registered voters. It also found that 60 percent think lawsuits against businesses have damaged the economy and slowed the economic recovery and that 88 percent support measures that would help protect companies from lawsuits that could put them out of business. And 78 percent think there are too many lawsuits filed in the United States.

Blass said the courts "play a critical role in protecting the interests of West Virginia businesses." He cited National Center for State Courts numbers that show business-against-business contract cases comprise more than 50 percent of all civil cases filed nationally and that just 5 percent of civil cases are tort cases, but one-third of those are tort cases filed by one business against another.

Blass also quoted Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, who has said our courts "are essential to protecting our free market economy by holding businesses that break the law accountable."

"The free market is wonderful. It encourages good behavior and punishes bad behavior," Phillips wrote. "The civil court system is part of the free market. It is the part that punishes bad behavior."

The results of the ATRA study are based on a national survey among 1,013 U.S. voters conducted by Luce Research by telephone from July 11-19. The interviews include both landline and mobile telephone numbers. The data were weighted by age, ethnicity and region to ensure a representative sampling of voters by all demographics, including gender, education and party identification. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence interval.

For the full results of the survey, click here.

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