CHARLESTON – As the 2016 legislative session gets into a routine, two organizations that watch legal reforms know what they want to happen this term.
The president of the West Virginia Association for Justice said her group aims to protect the rights of the people.
“We are particularly focusing on the rights of the Seventh Amendment,” WVAJ President Paige Flanigan said, referring to the right to a jury trial in civil cases. “It is just as important as the Second Amendment (right to bear arms). We’ve seen an eroding of people’s rights in favor of out-of-state interests.”
Still, the group for trial lawyers know it will have to continue its fight against an intermediate appellate court, an item that is on the agenda for Republican legislative leaders.
“That is going to cost almost $10 million to set that up, but there is no indication that we need it,” Flanigan said. “It’s just something on the Chamber’s wish list. We don’t need it, and we can’t afford it. Some of these things just don’t make sense.
“Where we have to fight it is in the here and now. I just don’t see that it’s necessary. This is where our fight is right now.”
Meanwhile, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is pushing for the intermediate appellate court.
“The budget makes it more difficult, but are really going to put a price on justice,” said Greg Thomas, WV CALA’s Legislative Director. “Of course, the challenge will be the budgetary concerns. But, the bipartisan support is there. We have to keep pressing with another aggressive agenda.”
Thomas said the state recently dropping from the top of the annual Judicial Helholes list is the first sign that last year’s legal reforms are being recognized. And he praised state Senate President and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole for that.
“Without Cole, these changes don’t get made,” Thomas said. “He has taken the lead, and he deserves the credit. We will push while he’s there. And, hopefully, he’ll be governor.
WV CALA Exeuctive Director Roman Stauffer echoed Thomas’s sentiments.
“We’re very excited to hear that many lawmakers are looking at building on their momentum from the last successful legislative session and continuing to bring elements of West Virginia’s legal system in line with the rest of the country,” Stauffer said. “The leadership of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senate President Bill Cole and Speaker Tim Armstead and many others brought significant changes to our state court system last year.
“Also, importantly, last year’s bi-partisan reforms led the American Tort Reform Foundation to remove our state from the Judicial Hellhole category, but more work remains.”
He noted that several legal reform bills already have been introduced, including legislation to address the wrongful conduct rule (SB 7), enacting into law an outside counsel bill for the attorney general’s office (SB 8), the establishment of an intermediate court of appeals (SB 9), and addressing learned intermediary (SB 15).
With the wrongful conduct rule, last year the state Supreme Court issued a decision in a case saying twenty-nine plaintiffs who admitted to committing drug-related crimes could sue pharmacies and medical centers over these criminals’ addiction to controlled substances.
Stauffer says enacting the wrongful conduct rule would prevent such abusive lawsuits filed by admitted criminals.
“It’s unfortunate that law-creating activist justices Brent Benjamin, Robin Davis, and Margaret Workman decided to enable criminals to profit from their illegal behavior,” he said. “Our state lawmakers will have the opportunity to take back from the Court the legislature’s constitutional lawmaking role – and pass the wrongful conduct bill.
“This measure will restore some common sense to the law and prevent criminals and their personal injury lawyers from profiting from their actions.”
As for the outside counsel hiring bill, it would codify the policy as established in Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office to promote fairness, transparency and competitive bidding in outside counsel hiring.
“We’re very optimistic that lawmakers will continue to address areas of our legal system that remain out-of-step with the majority of states across the country,” Stauffer said. “The bipartisan legal reforms passed last year have made our state more attractive to job creators. The reforms passed last year will provide more opportunities for West Virginians and boost our economy.
“Passing these laws will build off last year’s legislative success and further build a legal environment ripe for economic prosperity.”
Flanigan said the WVAJ also will take a stand against the forced pooling bill.
“We don’t’ think you should be able to take the rights of property owners,” she said.
The WVAJ also looks to have introduced a bill regarding insurance payment after automobile accidents.
“Right now, some medical providers are choosing not to bill health insurance,” she said. “They’re holding out, hoping to get more money from the auto insurer. We want a bill to require the medical providers to bill medical insurers.”