Lawmakers Mixed On Effect Of President's Call For Tort Reform

Republican Sen. Dean Kirby of Pearl thinks President Bush, by criticizing Mississippi's "lawsuit industry'' this week, has increased the momentum for change in the state's civil justice system.

Democratic Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford said the Republican president's criticism will make little difference in the kind of proposals lawmakers eventually adopt.

Bush spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of about 2,000 Wednesday at Madison Central High School, making his first presidential appearance in Mississippi. He won applause by saying "junk and frivolous lawsuits'' are hurting businesses and medical practices.

"The president said he wants to get rid of frivolous lawsuits,'' Tollison, a lawyer, said Thursday. "Nobody would disagree in this debate that we want to eliminate frivolous lawsuits.''

Tollison said Mississippi already has rules permitting judges to toss out lawsuits that are hardly worth the paper they're written on.

"We need to do a better job of enforcing them, and that's up to the judiciary branch,'' Tollison said.

He and Kirby are on a 26-member legislative committee that has spent the summer examining whether Mississippi's civil justice system needs a tweaking or a full-fledged overhaul. Kirby, an insurance agent who wants civil justice changes to help doctors and businesses, said the president focused national attention on Mississippi problems.

"I feel like more people will listen to the president than they will a state senator or a representative,'' Kirby said. "When he speaks, he speaks with authority.''

The legislative committee meets again next week, and is expected to consider a draft of proposals. Ideas could include capping non-economic damages or limiting where lawsuits can be filed.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove plans to call a special session later this summer on changes to help doctors find affordable medical malpractice insurance. He said he will add broader civil justice changes to the agenda if lawmakers make recommendations on time.

Bush on Wednesday called for federal caps of $250,000 on non-economic damages in civil suits. Sen. Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, is a lawyer who wants caps on non-economic damages.

"You can argue about what the number should be, but it's undisputed that non-economic damages are very subjective,'' said Ross, a member of the civil justice study committee. "It's virtually impossible to determine what an adequate and fair premium is.''

Rep. Walter Robinson, D-Bolton, a funeral director who's also on the study committee, said lawmakers need to do all they can to keep doctors in the state. He said, however, he wants to move cautiously because he doesn't want to limit people's rights to sue if they or their family members are hurt.

"You can't put a price on a mama in pain,'' Robinson said. "Everybody is thinking about if it's the other fella that's affected. Sometimes you need to look at it - what if it's your family?''