WASHINGTON – A national tort reform group has praised West Virginia for leading the way in civil justice reforms this year.
The American Tort Reform Association this week issued its annual State Tort Reform Enactments brief. In it, it says 13 states enacted more than 30 new reforms. West Virginia enacted 10 such laws.
“Unlike many members of Congress here in Washington, statehouse leaders are closer to their constituents’ concerns and seem more willing to cooperate across the aisle,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce said. “As I’ve said before, tort reform shouldn’t be about partisan politics because it’s ultimately about putting the interests of workers, consumers, taxpayers and patients above those of personal injury lawyers, whose relentless lawsuits undermine our economic competitiveness and access to healthcare.”
A statewide group of trial lawyers, however, said ATRA continues its “unwarranted attack” on West Virginia’s civil justice system.
“For more than a decade, the American Tort Reform Association has unjustifiably attacked West Virginia and hurt its reputation in state and national media,” said Beth White, executive director of the West Virginia Association for Justice. “The so-called ‘crisis’ in our civil justice system does not exist, and our courts have not hurt the state’s ability to grow its economy.”
In the ATRA release touting its brief, Joyce singled out West Virginia.
“A shining example of such statehouse bipartisanship came in West Virginia this year after voters last November, tired of their state’s anemic economy and longstanding reputation as a ‘judicial hellhole,’ swept new Republican majorities into both chambers of the Legislature where they quickly went to work, loosening the trial lawyers’ stranglehold with plenty of help from legislative Democrats and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin,” Joyce said.
“The architects of West Virginia’s 2015 tort reform breakout, including 10 new laws, expect a decrease in meritless litigation that clogs court dockets and delays justice for those with legitimate claims,” ATRA’s release states. “Among other things, the Mountain State’s reasonable new limits on civil liability protect property owners from unreasonable claims by trespassers and others who ignore open and obvious hazards.
White said the new reforms won’t help the state’s economy and, in fact, might hurt the state.
“Now ATRA is trumpeting legislation passed this year as great solutions for problems that don’t exist,” she said. “The truth is these new laws will do nothing to improve our state’s economy.
“Instead, they limit our Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury. They limit the ability to hold wrongdoers accountable when they harm West Virginia consumers, workers and small businesses. They shift the financial obligations from those responsible onto taxpayers – and for what?
“It was done so corporate special interests funding ATRA can increase their corporate profits at our expense. It’s wrong.”
White said ATRA doesn’t tell the whole story.
“When you look at facts instead of ATRA propaganda, you see that West Virginia ranks 39th among states in the number of civil lawsuits filed based on population,” White said. “You see that civil case filings are declining. You see that the number of appeals to the West Virginia Supreme Court are at a 29-year low.
“More than $20 billion in new business investments have been made in the state in the last decade, and the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis stated that we had one of the fastest growing economies in the country last year.
“Those facts don’t point to problems with either our courts or our economy. If anything has damaged our ability to bring new businesses and good paying jobs to this state, it has been ATRA itself and its baseless attacks.”
White noted that Tomblin was critical of ATRA in this year’s State of the State address.
“I resent those who irresponsibly label us a judicial hellhole,” Tomblin said then. “Unreasonable and irrational labels drummed up by out-of-state interests do not help our efforts to engage potential investors and strengthen our economy.”
Joyce praised other states for their tort reforms as well.
“In addition to West Virginia’s historic accomplishments, other states made important progress, too,” he said, noting changes made in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.”
ATRA said three particular areas of civil justice reform seemed to most engage lawmakers: making a state’s occasional contracts with private sector attorneys more transparent to the public, bringing similar transparency to compensation claims administered by asbestos bankruptcy trusts, and protecting property owners against particularly egregious lawsuits by trespassers.
Maryland and Nevada also enacted significant appeal bond reform, lowering the risk for civil defendants wishing to appeal their cases.
“The reform enactments made in states across the country are very encouraging,” Joyce said. “Frustrated by Washington’s inability or unwillingness to enact pro-growth policies that can shift the economy into higher gear, state lawmakers realize what’s at stake and are working together to ease the burden that our nation’s relentless lawsuit industry imposes on entrepreneurs and their employees.”