CHARLESTON – In his State of the State address, Governor Jim Justice hailed the “miracle” unfolding in the Mountain State. We’re now on sound fiscal footing, so we can invest more in things like education and infrastructure.
There are numerous reasons for this turnaround, but perhaps none more consequential than the legal reform laws passed during the past few years.
To say that West Virginia’s legal system had a poor reputation around the country is an understatement. The Mountain State has been ranked as the worst or next-to-worst lawsuit climate for the last 15 years. It’s been the subject of abuse not only by plaintiffs’ lawyers, but also by our government officials who once handed out contract after contract to contingency fee lawyers, who made lots of money off the state by suing employers —some of whom responded by leaving the state.
That’s why we had to make legal reform a top priority on the road to economic reform, and I believe our efforts are starting to pay dividends. The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s (ILR) 2017 Lawsuit Climate Survey showed West Virginia in 45th place — a five-slot improvement. That might not look like much, but it’s a significant achievement after years at the bottom. To get there, we had to tackle some major issues.
We made our damages system more reasonable and fair, and reversed decisions that were out of step with state courts around the country. We’ve adopted medical criteria developed by the American Medical Association so those who are truly harmed aren’t blocked from court because of a logjam of meritless claims. We’ve also worked to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on litigation only in an efficient, transparent manner, and not only on lawyers who contribute to political campaigns.
The impact our reforms had on the state is documented in ILR’s newly released paper, West Virginia’s Climb: Lawsuit Climate Progress in the Mountain State and the Path Ahead.
We’ve indeed begun our journey toward a more normal lawsuit environment, but we cannot be satisfied with where we are. It’s now up to us to continue our work to truly harness the power of West Virginia’s economy, and there’s still plenty to do.
We can start by creating an intermediate appellate court. West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate court to hear appeals from trial courts. This forces our single, five-member Supreme Court to look over thousands of cases that deserve closer scrutiny.
We must also regulate the misleading lawyer advertising that has created medical hysteria across the country. These “medical alerts” are no more than advertisements for trial lawyers, though they have the appearance of coming directly from doctors.
Our class action system is also in dire need of changes, as it is currently plagued by countless meritless lawsuits that drag on and extract settlements from businesses. We can also put an end to the litigation tourism that permits lawsuits that have little to do with West Virginia to clog our courts.
“Medical monitoring” suits also invite the opportunity for plaintiffs’ lawyer abuse. These suits allow cash awards without requiring evidence that anyone was actually injured. Look no further than a 2011 settlement that gave out 4,000 such payments, only to find that just half of plaintiffs actually went through the monitoring.
Gov. Justice was right to say “we’re moving like you can’t imagine.” We’ve made great strides toward stabilizing West Virginia’s finances and creating an environment where businesses once again feel welcome in the state. But we must continue to reform West Virginia’s outdated and costly litigation system. Not doing so risks sliding back down the mountain of progress.
Carmichael, R-Jackson, represents the Fourth Senatorial District, which includes Jackson and Mason counties and parts of Putnam and Roane counties. He is the president of the West Virginia Senate.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns The West Virginia Record.)