House Issues Own Tort Reform Report

House members of a tort reform committee decided Wednesday to issue their own report on how to change Mississippi's civil justice system. That angered some senators, who expected the House and Senate to issue a report together - one that Gov. Ronnie Musgrove could use as a blueprint for a special session in coming weeks.

"I think we are in danger of creating a bad impression of the legislative process,'' Senate Judiciary Chairman Bennie Turner, D-West Point, said after House members adjourned. House Judiciary A Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, co-chaired the study committee with Turner.

Watson told House members that Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, had told him the House was "not obligated to confer with the Senate'' to create a joint report. Musgrove can use recommendations from each chamber to set an agenda for a special legislative session, but it was unclear Wednesday whether he would examine the separate reports and find common points for general civil justice changes.

"We've discussed the crisis in the affordability and availability of medical malpractice insurance in Mississippi,'' Musgrove said in a prepared statement. "I will call a special session to deal with this issue, and if the legislative leadership presents me with a plan for overall civil justice reform, we will include it in that special session.''

Only a governor can call a special session, and only he can set the agenda. Some highlights of the reports:

  • The House is suggesting a $500,000 cap for pain and suffering awards only in medical malpractice lawsuits. That figure could be adjusted later to account for cost of living changes. The Senate is suggesting a broader cap of $500,000 for pain and suffering awards in all types of lawsuits - business or medical.
  • The Senate endorsed caps on punitive damages for all types of lawsuits. The House did not vote on limiting punitive damage awards.
  • The Senate wanted to give immunity from lawsuits for incidents that happen on businesses' property. The House did not consider immunity.
  • The House recommended establishing an insurance pool for doctors, nursing homes and other medical providers. The Senate did not vote on such a pool.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Tim Ford in May created the committee with 13 senators and 13 House members to study Mississippi's civil justice system, including medical malpractice issues. The group spent the summer hearing sworn testimony from lawyers, doctors, patients, business lobbyists and others. Study committee members said last week they would issue a report before Aug. 30.

The House ended its work Wednesday with some saying they saw no need to meet with senators and others asking their colleagues to try for a compromise.

"We have come this far and we are quitting before we reach the finish line if we don't see what we can agree on with the Senate,'' said Rep. Mary Ann Stevens, D-West.

Said Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton: ``We're not going to be able to resolve the differences.''

Leaders of the Mississippi State Medical Association praised the House for recommending caps on medical malpractice lawsuits, but said lawmakers should take a broader look at the civil justice system.

"One area I'm concerned about is general business interests,'' said Dr. George McGee of Hattiesburg, president-elect of the medical association.

David Baria of Jackson, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said caps on pain and suffering damages would hurt people.

"It's not a blow to trial lawyers,'' Baria said. "It's a blow to the people of Mississippi who get catastrophically injured.''