Missouri applauded for tort reform

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The chamber of commerce is pleased with the study, but consumer groups call it unfair.

The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was in St. Louis Monday to applaud Missouri's efforts to improve the fairness of the state's legal system -- and to criticize Illinois and other states for moving too slowly on reforms.

The chamber released its annual "legal fairness" ranking of the states. The survey of 1,400 lawyers by Harris Interactive ranked Delaware, Nebraska, Virginia, Iowa and Connecticut at the top of the list. The bottom five: West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Hawaii. Illinois ranks sixth worst.

"This survey sends a clear message to states whose legal climate drives away businesses, jobs and economic development," Tom Donohue said in a written statement. "If you want a healthy state economy, clean up your act."

Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Mehner didn't attend the news conference, but said tort reform was one of the issues that a federation of more than 50 chambers across the state wanted addressed last year.

Lawsuits can go overboard

"We're headed in the right direction," said Mehner, adding that he wasn't sure what the survey looked at specifically. "Tort reform is about stopping the abuse of the system."

Mehner said lawsuits against companies sometimes go overboard, citing the case of the person who sued McDonald's because their coffee was too hot.

"Look at all the warnings you have these days," he said. "Don't eat this child safety seat. That's how ridiculous some of them are."

But Cape Girardeau lawyer Michael Ponder said tort reform only slants the law in favor of big business.

"It's not an economic program at all," he said. "It doesn't spur growth. I certainly believe that big business lobbied for and will enjoy the benefits of tort reform at the expense of injury victims and the average citizen."

Consumer groups, including the New York-based Center for Justice & Democracy, call the study a dishonest and unfair effort to limit awards for deserving litigants. The organization said among those surveyed are in-house lawyers for major corporations.

"These surveys reflect nothing more than the Chamber's political agenda to limit lawsuits and accountability for corporate wrongdoers," the organization said in a news release.

Donohue saluted Missouri for its legal reform over the past year. The state moved up five notches to 35th.

Court shopping

"In the last year, Missouri has passed one of the most comprehensive legal reform packages in the country, including legislation that keeps people from shopping around the state for the friendliest courts in which to sue," Donohue said.

But Ken Suggs, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said a Missouri bill aimed at reducing high malpractice premiums for doctors has failed to do so. Meanwhile, Suggs said, the bill protects corporations from being adequately penalized for wrongdoing.

"Companies out for power and profit sure don't want any checks or balances," Suggs said.

In Illinois, the state's failure to consider legislation limiting where lawsuits could be filed hurts the state's economy, Donohue said. But the Center for Justice & Democracy disputed that.

"The U.S. Chamber's attack on our business environment is totally inconsistent with the facts here on the ground," said the center's Amber Hard in Chicago.

Business groups and lawmakers in recent years have tried to rehabilitate public perception of Illinois' legal system, often described by critics as a plaintiffs' paradise in big-money lawsuits. Detractors have pointed to Madison County in particular as a "judicial hellhole" where lawyers from across the country file cases in hope of big payouts.

Notorious Illinois county

President Bush visited Madison County in January 2005 as a backdrop for pressuring Congress to pass legislation limiting jury awards for medical malpractice. And in August, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law seeking to hold down steep medical malpractice costs for doctors by limiting the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against hospitals and physicians.

Madison County for the past two years had been No. 1 on the Washington-based American Tort Reform Association's list of places it deems worst for lawsuit defendants before the county was supplanted by Texas' Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast regions in the latest rankings released in December.

Madison County slid to fourth. Neighboring St. Clair County, Ill., dropped from second to fifth in the pro-business lobbying group's rankings. Cook County was second, with ATRA citing the Chicago area's "penchant for asbestos litigation, class-action lawsuits and forum shopping."

Southeast Missourian business editor Scott Moyers contributed to this report.

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