CHARLESTON – West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (WV CALA) is hosting its fourth annual Small Business Summer Tour across the state, in a drive that it characterizes as an attempt to increase awareness of the impact of lawsuit abuse on small businesses and to bring attention to lawsuit reform.
A state group for trial lawyers, however, calls the meetings bogus because it says they aren't open to everyone.
Roman Stauffer, executive director of WV CALA, said the purpose of his group's Small Business Summer Tour is to show how meritless lawsuits by personal injury lawyers can hurt West Virginia small businesses and the state economy.
“Our round tables are important because they provide an opportunity for us to listen to small business owners, job creators, community leaders and elected officials about how these lawsuits affect businesses and communities across the state," Stauffer told the The West Virginia Record.
Stauffer says abusive lawsuits filed against small businesses are limiting job growth in West Virginia, which he says desperately needs more job opportunities.
The Small Business Summer Tour will feature five small business round-table meetings across West Virginia. The first meeting took place in the last week of June in Beckley and included state Sen. Sue Cline and Delegates John D. O’Neal IV, Kayla Kessinger and Marty Gearheart. A second meeting took place on July 6 in Fairmont.
Stauffer said the format of the round tables begins with a brief introduction about West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and then opens up for discussion. “We listen to folks who may have been involved in a lawsuit, or have contacts who have been involved in a lawsuit, and provide information about the reforms that the state Legislature has recently passed,” he said. “We see if there are any suggestions that we can pass along to state legislators and policymakers about some things they might be able to look at to help small businesses across West Virginia.”
The West Virginia Association for Justice, however, denounced both WV CALA and the meetings, saying they are restricted to current WV CALA members and lawmakers who support their positions but are presented to the public as legitimate public forums.
“CALA has held these so-called business summit meetings for three years now," WVAJ President Jane Peak said. "They are nothing more than pep rallies and PR stunts for its current supporters. These events are by invitation only and are not open to the public.
"It’s very easy to tell the media that you have the local business community on your side when you’ve pre-selected your audience and they agree with you already. It’s laughable that CALA is trying to pass these things off as legitimate public forums, but then CALA has been misleading West Virginians for more than 20 years."
The WVAJ says CALA is a front group created by APCO Worldwide to “represent major corporations and industries seeking to escape liability for the harm they cause consumers. They are funded by 'large corporate donors, including tobacco, insurance, oil and gas, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, medical associations and automobile manufacturers.'"
“The truth is CALA does not care about protecting the financial interests of West Virginia small business owners," Peak said. "It does not care about West Virginia workers and consumers. Its only concern is increasing the profits of the out-of-state corporations that fund it, and it’s willing to say or do anything to make that happen."
An example of lawsuit abuse that WV CALA learned about at a previous small business tour, Stauffer said, was an issue regarding how quickly terminated employees were required to be compensated.
“A small business owner who owns several pizza store franchises, who had several lawsuits brought against her, brought this issue to our attention,” said Stauffer. “Employers were required to compensate terminated employees within 72 hours of their departure, regardless of where it occurred in the employee pay cycle. If a small business didn’t meet the 72-hour deadline, the employee could file a lawsuit, and the damages were multiplied several times over. We took this issue to House Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Bill Cole, and they acted, and the Legislature passed a much-needed lawsuit reform to bring West Virginia in line with surrounding states.”
The Wage Payment Collection Act was passed in 2015 to address this issue.
Additional Small Business Summer Tour meetings planned for this summer will be held in Charleston, Martinsburg and Wheeling.
Peak said one of the most egregious examples of CALA’s misinformation is that lawsuits are a significant concern for small businesses. She says a National Federation of Independent Businesses report, Small Business Problems and Priorities, shows that “threat of lawsuits” ranks last among problems associated with business costs and 71st of the 75 concerns identified in the study.
“WVAJ believes that West Virginians should know the truth about our justice system and the critical role it plays in protecting the rights of every West Virginian — including our small business owners," Peak said. "Our civil courts protect our state-owned businesses when they have been wronged by billion-dollar national and international corporations.
"Our courts are the only place where a locally-owned business is equal to the world’s biggest and richest corporations. CALA wants to take that away — and it’s misleading and lying to our state business owners to do it. It’s wrong."