U.S. Chamber Ranks Mississippi Low In Tort Reform

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for the third year in a row, ranked Mississippi 50th in the nation Monday in terms of legal fairness. At the same time, the National Law Journal's annual survey showed there was not a single jury verdict in Mississippi in 2003 in the top 100.

Tort reform laws were passed in 2002 and took effect Jan. 1, 2003. It is unlikely those laws had much impact last year because many lawsuits were filed before the legislation was enacted.

Legal experts attribute the decline to jurors more critically examining claims and an anti-lawsuit climate.

"It just underlines what we have been saying all along. Things aren't as bad as people say,'' said Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association President John Christopher.

Steve Browning, executive director of Mississippians for Economic Progress, said lawsuit abuse has not been eliminated.

"Only comprehensive tort reform can end lawsuit abuse,'' Browning said.

The new laws in Mississippi cap punitive damages based on a company's net worth but not exceeding $20 million. For businesses worth less than $50 million, the cap is not more than 4 percent of its net worth. Caps also were placed on medical malpractice claims.

The state Senate recently passed a bill strengthening the measures taken in 2002, including limiting where lawsuits can be filed. The bill has been sent to the House.

The U.S. Chamber said it is launching a national advertising campaign highlighting the results the Institute for Legal Reform's survey of more than 1,400 senior attorneys of public corporations and insurance companies.

Thomas Donohue, the chamber president and CEO, said the survey listed Mississippi, West Virginia and Illinois with the lowest-rated legal systems in the country. Donohue said those states should "enact legislation that will restore fairness and balance to their civil litigation systems.''

"Businesses go where they are wanted and they bring jobs and economic growth to the state with the best legal systems,'' he said. "Mississippi is the worst offender - that is why we need the Mississippi House to pass the comprehensive legal reform legislation already approved by the Senate.''

Large verdicts had placed Mississippi in the national spotlight. In 2002, Mississippi had a $30.2 million verdict in Hinds County, ranking it No. 76 on that year's National Law Journal list.

In 2001, Mississippi had five jury awards on the top 100 list, including a $150 million award in an asbestos lawsuit in Holmes County that ranked No. 9 on the list.

Alabama topped the list in 2003 as the state with the largest jury verdict, an $11.8 billion verdict against Exxon Mobil. Florida was at the bottom, with an $18 million award.

Robert Johnson III, a Natchez attorney who was part of the team that successfully defended drug makers in two Mississippi lawsuits last year, said he thinks jurors are beginning to take a more critical look at claims.

"The public is at a point that it will compensate if there is a wrong, but is not just going to award money to award money,'' said Johnson, a former state senator.

Mississippi College law professor Matthew Steffey said such large verdicts in Mississippi were cyclical, and the problem may have been exaggerated.

"I think the pendulum has started to swing back,'' Steffey said. "It was a brief thing.''

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)