BOBBY HARRISON: Lawsuit reform traces itself to several sources

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

The old gang is getting back together for a 10-year anniversary/celebratory mass back-slapping event.

The gang that pushed changes through the Legislature to make it harder to sue a business in Mississippi is holding events to look back and forward as it relates to the state’s civil justice system.

Last week key legislators who pushed the changes through in a special session in 2004 called by then-Gov. Haley Barbour spoke to the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute/capitol press corps luncheon. the Mississippi Economic Council, a key player in the tort changes, will hold an event today to hear from those key legislators, Barbour and others.

No doubt, the changes to the civil justice system that culminated with the 2004 special session represent a milestone event in Mississippi – in terms of the court system as well as the political system.

The changes reined in the plaintiffs’ bar at a time when there were documented cases of lawsuit abuse occurring in certain areas of the state. Whether the changes went too far is a legitimate debate that reasonable people can disagree.

But the changes also had long-lasting political consequences for the state. At the time, to a very large extent, the state Republican Party in general was much more supportive than the Democratic Party to the changes to the civil justice system.

Before the early 2000s, there were certain elements of the Democratic Party that depended on trial attorneys for their financial support to run political campaigns. But in general, Democrats, like Republicans, garnered financial support from the business community.

But after the 2003 campaign, support from the business and medical communities for Democratic candidates has been the exception rather than the rule. The result has been that it is very difficult for Democratic candidates to raise funds to run for office. Granted, conservative-leaning Mississippi was making an inevitable move to the Republican Party, but the fight over civil justice changes and the drying up of business support for Democratic candidates accelerated that move.

Haley Barbour, Washington, D.C, lobbyist, former head of the Republican National Committee and former political director in the Ronald Reagan White House, was the perfect person to take advantage of those dynamics when he ran for governor in 2003. Barbour collected about three times more money than had ever been collected in a political campaign in that race.

As part of his campaign, he promised to push civil justice changes through the Legislature. When the Democratic leadership of the House blocked his efforts during the 2004 regular session, he almost immediately called a special session where he prevailed.

It is that effort, to a large extent, being honored by the MEC and others.

But there were other events that occurred before the 2004 special session that might have been just as meaningful in the effort to curb the ability to file lawsuits.

For instance, much of the controversy centered around the ability in Mississippi to combine various claims into one lawsuit. The thought was, if numerous lawsuits centered around the same issue, it made sense to joined them into one case to ensure more efficiency in the court system. But people complained that plaintiff attorneys were looking for friendly courts in Mississippi and joining numerous claims to the one lawsuit in that favorable jurisdiction.

There were countless stories of the same pharmacy in southwest Mississippi being sued time and again to get a case against a giant drug marker filed in that jurisdiction.

Legislation was passed in the previous, legendary 83-day special session, called by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2002, to limit that practice. But the real halt to the joining of the cases came from rulings from the state Supreme Court.

The 83-day special session also put in place some caps on non economic damages (also known as pain and suffering) in medical cases and put in place caps on punitive damages. The 2004 special session added to those changes, including tightening up the caps on pain and suffering and extending them to lawsuits filed against businesses.

True, significant changes occurred to the civil justice system in 2004. But they also did in the 2002 special session and due to rulings by the Supreme Court.

And, yes, taken in total, those changes represent a watershed event in the state’s judicial and political systems.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.