Trial Lawyers Take To Air In Tort Reform Battle

Mississippi trial lawyers launched an air strike Tuesday in the state's tort reform battle, flying to five cities in what they called a campaign "to tone down the hysteria.''

Medical professionals have deemed Mississippi one of the nation's worst states to practice. They say the state's litigious climate has prompted insurers to stop writing policies for liability coverage, causing a malpractice insurance crisis.

Doctors and business leaders have gone toe-to-toe with trial lawyers for months as Mississippi lawmakers consider whether to change the state's civil justice laws. President Bush even joined the fray during a visit to Mississippi last week.

In a statewide tour Tuesday, leaders of the Jackson-based Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association said changes are not necessary. The association has continually said that tort reform measures, such as placing caps on damages for pain and suffering, will do nothing to reduce the cost of liability insurance.

"The rhetoric about health care, tort reform and medical malpractice insurance has become anything but civil this summer,'' said David Baria, president of the trial lawyers group, who took his message aboard a small rented airplane to Greenville, Tupelo, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Gulfport.

"Doctors are frantic, patients are scared and the general public is up in arms over something that was created by big insurance companies and greedy corporations,'' Baria said in prepared remarks.

The focus of the debate in recent weeks has been the much-publicized flight of a number of doctors who can't afford or obtain malpractice insurance. How many physicians have left the state and how many are practicing are points of contention between doctors and trial lawyers. Both sides are doing their best to spin the numbers in their favor.

Trial lawyers cite statistics from the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure that show the state has gained 564 doctors in the past five years. The Mississippi State Medical Association, however, says those same statistics reveal a net loss of 73 doctors in the past year _ from 5,710 in 2001 to 5,637 this year.

"Even that doesn't tell the whole story,'' said medical association president Dr. John Cook of Jackson. "Dozens of out-of-state doctors who have never set foot here hold a Mississippi license because it's required if they work as a peer reviewer for a health plan. Scores more have retired and don't practice medicine but still hold a license.''

Baria said Mississippi doctors are being used as pawns in a public relations scheme "concocted by those who want to line their own pockets at the expense of our citizens.''

Baria reiterated what his organization has said for months: Large insurers are raising rates not because of Mississippi's legal climate but because of shoddy business practices and losses in the financial markets.

"To distract us from the truth, insurance companies have decided to make Mississippi's civil justice system the scapegoat,'' Baria said.

Speaking in Madison last Wednesday, Bush said "junk and frivolous lawsuits'' are hurting businesses and medical practices in Mississippi and elsewhere. The president called for federal caps of $250,000 on non-economic damages in civil suits.

A 26-member legislative committee has spent the summer examining whether Mississippi's civil justice system needs a tweaking or a full-fledged overhaul. The committee meets again Wednesday and Thursday and is expected to consider a draft of proposals, such as 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 in time.

Asked what influence the president's visit might have on the matter, Baria said: "If it has any effect, it will be in the court of public opinion. Our legislators have heard a lot more facts about this than President Bush.''