McCoy: Barbour Hurt State By Releasing Toyota Letter

House Speaker Billy McCoy says the governor hurt Mississippi by soliciting and releasing a letter from a Toyota executive that criticized the state's civil justice system.

"I am appalled ... that our governor would choose to use an international company in such a way and that he would ask Toyota to be publicly critical of Mississippi,'' McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Friday during a news conference in his Capitol office.

"I am not only appalled. I am deeply disappointed that the governor is directly responsible for media coverage that damages Mississippi,'' McCoy said.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour responded in an interview later: "Mississippi cannot solve its problems if we don't admit that we have the problem. We're not going to end lawsuit abuse in Mississippi by sweeping the problem under the table.''

On Monday, Barbour released letters from three corporate leaders, including Dennis C. Cuneo, a New York-based senior vice president of Toyota Motor North America Inc.

Cuneo said in an April 20 letter to Barbour that Toyota decided against locating a manufacturing plant in Mississippi last year in part because of the state's legal climate.

Barbour has said he asked Cuneo to write the letter after Cuneo was quoted in Site Selection magazine earlier this year saying the same thing.

The letters are part of a long battle over whether Mississippi lawmakers will change the state's judicial system to limit the way civil lawsuits may be filed and how large the awards may be.

Barbour ran last year on promises to enact new limits. That effort is backed by business and medical groups, including some of Barbour's financial supporters.

Opponents say putting new limits on medical-malpractice or product-liability cases would hurt people who are harmed by others' negligence. Trial lawyers, who often give Democrats financial support, are the most vocal opponents of Barbour's proposals.

McCoy said he talked to Cuneo by phone Thursday. Cuneo sent McCoy a follow-up letter and said he was surprised his message to Barbour had been widely distributed.

"My letter (to Barbour) was meant to convey my opinion that a state's litigation climate is one factor that is considered in site selection,'' Cuneo wrote to McCoy. "It's not the only factor, and in our case wasn't the deciding factor - but it was one of several factors that we consider.''

Toyota is building its new plant in Texas. McCoy said it was wrong for Barbour to solicit and release a letter that casts Mississippi in a bad light.

"Mississippi's elected officials should not actively work to tarnish the reputation of our state,'' McCoy said. "This tactic has damaged Mississippi, and that damage cannot be undone easily.''

Barbour has said he'll call a special session if lawmakers finish the four-month regular session without passing "comprehensive'' tort reform. Among other things, Barbour wants a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages for things like pain and suffering.

House Judiciary A Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said he will not agree to any non-economic caps because they would disproportionately hurt children, retirees and people who don't work outside the home.

"It means their life is not worth anything - $250,000,'' Blackmon said Friday. "That's beyond anything I'd be willing to do.''

The session is set to end May 9. The House has passed a bill designed to give doctors more medical malpractice insurance coverage, but that bill died without coming up for a vote of the full Senate.

The Senate has passed two bills with civil justice changes Barbour wants, but those bills died without coming up for votes of the full House.

A resolution has been filed to revive the civil justice debate, but the two chambers haven't agreed on what they might consider.

Lawmakers have until the last day of the session to work on the issue.

The resolution is House Concurrent Resolution 114.

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