CHARLESTON – A statewide legal reform group is blaming House leadership for a lack of meaningful legal reform during the recently completed legislative session.
“There are certain members of the leadership of the House of Delegates who believe being 45th or 48th is good enough,” said Greg Thomas of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “We’re not last like we were before, but it’s still not good enough.
“The last few sessions, we had made positive steps. But, we’re still not very good.”
Thomas cited a bill that would have created an intermediate appellate court that passed the Senate and had the support of Gov. Jim Justice.
“But certain parts of the House leadership team didn’t let that go through,” he said, declining to name names. “We don’t have an automatic right of appeal. There was a watered down medical monitoring bill. We wanted the seatbelt admissibility bill. But certain members of the House leadership team didn’t want that to go through because, in the past, they’ve filed those types of cases.”
House Judiciary Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer) disagreed with Thomas’ assessment of the session.
“CALA is always going to have its agenda,” Shott said. “We did a lot of heavy lifting the last few years on the legal reform front. This year, we really were focused on removing some legal obstacles to employment. We did take up the medical monitoring bill that, we thought, had the support of all of the stakeholder groups.
“But when it got to the Senate, they attached a section that we had taken out of the original bill by agreement with the West Virginia Association For Justice and the (U.S.) Chamber of Commerce. When it came back over on the last night of the session that way, that caused the WVAJ concern, and it isn’t what we agreed to. We did not concur with it. And we don’t do bait-and-switch.”
(Editor's Note: The West Virginia Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute For Legal Reform.)
Shott said he long has said he isn’t convinced the state needs an intermediate appellate court.
“But, we did look at that issue. We started to run that bill toward the end of the session. But we didn’t do it. I think the Senate and (Senate Judiciary) Chairman (Charles) Trump have done a lot of work looking at the issue. The cost of the court itself, the other things needed to get it up and running. I just don’t think the state needs it.”
Thomas said CALA plans to try to work with legislative leaders to look at more legal reform.
“Look, we’re going to try to continue to work with the rest of the House leadership, get past this impasse and start passing more legal reform so West Virginia can become competitive with other states, create jobs, grow economy,” Thomas said. “We want to be like everyone else. But we’re not there yet. We’re going to work until we get better.
“But unless some changes are made to the House leadership, we’ll probably not be overly involved in the 2020 legislative session. Instead, we’ll be more involved in 2020 election campaigns.
“We’re going to fix the legal system. There are different ways to attack this problem. And we’re going to do whatever we can to make sure it’s fixed. As far as CALA is concerned, I would anticipate more focus on the makeup of the House of Delegates going into the 2020 session and election year.”
Shott said he believes the House “passed a lot of good bills” this session and accomplished most of its priorities.
“As far as CALA is concerned, I don’t think I ever heard from them,” he said. “We did a lot of legal reform. But, I’m not elected to serve CALA.”
Steve New, the president of the WVAJ, said his group for trial attorneys was pleased the intermediate appellate court bill didn’t pass.
“I believe both with a majority of legislators and the public in general, they understand that it’s an unnecessary and costly expansion of government,” New said. “Also, we were able to reach compromise with other stakeholders regarding medical malpractice certificate of merit and some other pieces of legislation.”
New said two bills that passed the last day of the session concern the WVAJ.
The first is Senate Bill 487, which deals with medical facility staffing. New said the bill makes it OK for hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities to meet state staffing guidelines but not federal ones.
“For some reason, Republicans were OK with only compliance with state law although these facilities receive federal funds,” New said. “But in the context of a lawsuit, compliance with state law is enough to be immune from suit.
“In other words, a facility could be cited for a violation under federal law of inadequate staffing, yet that facility would still be entitled to immunity in a state lawsuit for inadequate staffing.”
The second bill is SB 543, which deals with the sale of as-is vehicles. New said the bill originally included vehicles sold for less than $4,000, is seven years old and has more than 100,000 miles.
“But, those ‘ands’ got changed to ‘ors,’ meaning a car sold with any of those criteria can be sold as-is with no warranties whatsoever,” New said. “Even when we try to be reasonable, it’s not enough.
“But all in all, we are pleased with the outcome of the session. We were able to work with the both the state and U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the insurance federation on the lawsuit lending bill. We worked with insurance federation on electronic notices for changes to insurance policies.
“We find common ground and middle ground when we can. Where we could reach compromise, we did. And I’m pleased about that. Reasonable civil justice legislation, we always are willing to talk about that. We will vehemently oppose legislation we think damages the civil justice system.”
The president of the state Chamber was pleased with the passage of several key bills, including updates to the state Department of Environmental Protection air and water quality standards with the rules necessary to implement harmonic mean flow and overlapping mixing zones, wireless small cell deployment, expansion of community & technical college programs with the "last dollar in" tuition program, expanded utility access to Department of Highways rights-of-way, banking revisions to allow for the implementation of the state's medical cannabis law, a reduction in the severance tax rate for steam coal, a three-year phased elimination of the personal income tax on Social Security benefits, restrictions on third-party litigation financing and revisions to the Medical Professional Liability Act.
“There were, unfortunately, several good bills which the West Virginia Chamber supported that were not passed by the Legislature this year,” Roberts said. Those included the creation of an intermediate appellate court, codification of an appeal as a matter of right, the omnibus education reform package and legislation to reduce or repeal the tangible personal property tax on business equipment and inventories.
“The voice of the West Virginia Chamber was heard loudly during the session,” Roberts said. “Legislative leaders have expressed their thanks to the West Virginia Chamber and its members for being engaged and weighing in on these important issues.”