House Members Say They Need More Study Time On Tort Changes

Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday said they could not reach an immediate agreement on proposed civil justice changes, and gave themselves until Aug. 30 to craft a compromise. Their lack of action disappointed business lobbyists and doctors, who expected to leave the Capitol with a concrete list of proposals.

Senators have already prepared a list of 13 ideas, but House members said they needed more time to deliberate. Among the Senate suggestions was a $500,000 cap on awards for non-economic damages. An early draft of House ideas did not include a cap.

"For the life of me, I can't figure out why the House needs more time,'' said Mark Dvorak, executive director of Mississippians for Economic Progress, a group pushing for civil justice revisions. "It seems to me they would have more than enough information by now to make a decision.''

A committee of 13 House members and 13 senators has been studying the civil justice system since May. The study group held several public hearings around the state and listened to final testimony on Wednesday.

Business groups and doctors say multimillion dollar verdicts are hurting Mississippi. Some doctors are having trouble renewing medical malpractice insurance, and they hope civil justice changes will help.

Trial lawyers say Mississippi's civil system works fine and insurance companies are trying to improve their own finances by limiting people's right to sue.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove plans to call a special session to help doctors find medical malpractice insurance. He has said he'll add general civil justice legislation to the agenda if the study committee comes up with recommendations in time. Only a governor can call a special session, and only he can set the agenda.

Musgrove originally said he would call a session in late summer. The governor would not say Thursday whether he'll wait for the legislative study group to finish its work before he summons the full House and Senate back to the Capitol.

"The urgency of the situation to make certain our people have access to quality health care remains,'' Musgrove said in a prepared statement.

Some senators were upset about the House asking for more work time.

"Folks, I'm flabbergasted,'' said Sen. Terry Burton, D-Newton. "We've all heard the same testimony - not only have we heard the same testimony, but we've heard it over and over and over.''

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said he was not ready to vote on recommendations and he thought the Senate was pressuring the House to meet a Friday deadline. Watson said the Friday deadline was never approved by the study committee, it was only suggested.

Some lawmakers said the House and Senate study committee members should approve separate lists and send those to Musgrove. Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Pass Christian, said legislators would be shirking their responsibility if they did that.

"We will be absolutely boiled by the public, and deservedly so,'' Simpson said.