Lawmakers Disagree On Scope Of Changes

Mississippi lawmakers should propose a comprehensive package of civil justice changes to help doctors and businesses, says a state senator on a tort reform study committee. A House member on the committee said the only real crisis now is among doctors who are having trouble getting medical malpractice insurance.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, and Sen. Terry Burton, D-Newton, spoke Monday at a luncheon sponsored by Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps. Flaggs said he's not opposed to broad civil justice changes, but he only sees an immediate need to help doctors.

Some are having trouble renewing malpractice policies because insurance companies are raising rates or pulling out of Mississippi. Burton said if lawmakers fail to pass a comprehensive package in a special session soon, they'll have to deal with changes to help businesses when the next regular session starts in January.

"I see no reason for the Legislature to be put through this twice,'' Burton said. "We can deal with business and medical (malpractice) all at once and be done with it, and I think that's what we ought to do.''

The study committee, with 13 members from the House and 13 from the Senate, has spent three months examining Mississippi's civil justice system. It set an Aug. 30 deadline to approve a list of proposals to recommend to the entire Legislature.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove says he'll call a special session late this summer to deal with medical malpractice insurance and he'll add general civil justice legislation to the agenda if the study committee gives him recommendations on time.

Senators on the study committee were ready last week to vote on a list of proposals, including capping pain and suffering damage awards at $500,000. Some House members are balking at caps.

Flaggs said Monday he would support several changes, including limiting where lawsuits can be filed and giving nursing home records the same privacy as other medical records.

"I don't think any and everybody ought to have access to your records,'' Flaggs said.

Lance Stevens of Jackson, past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said he expects that neither trial lawyers nor business people and doctors to be completely satisfied with the compromise package that finally wins legislative approval.

"The one thing we do have in common, all of us here, is we all deplore frivolous lawsuits,'' Stevens said. "The problem that we have is that with physicians and manufacturers, every claim is frivolous.''

Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said Monday his organization's main beef is with those plaintiffs lawyers who abuse the state's court system to enrich themselves.

"These lawyers lawyers advertise to recruit plaintiffs from all over the country and dump them into Mississippi courts,'' McBride said. "This is bad policy and our state leaders need to stop it.''

The Mississippi State Medical Association has also said it wants civil justice changes that will bring stability to the state's business, legal and medical communities.