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Between rounds of golf and well-stocked receptions, those attending


last month's business summit at the world-class Greenbrier resort spent a


lot of time whining about a shared foe: the lawyers who represent


plaintiffs in civil lawsuits.



The need for "tort reform" became a common theme at the


  • ummit: Greedy lawyers swamp the state's courts with meritless suits; huge

    jury verdicts drive away good businesses and caring doctors; "bad public


    officials," especially certain Supreme Court justices and circuit judges,


    let these lawyers get away with it.



    The summit's business leaders, lobbyists and corporate lawyers invited


    the leading gubernatorial candidates in to ask their opinions on this and


    other subjects. Gov. Cecil Underwood lined himself alongside the


  • ummit's stance.


    The governor reminded the summit that he has touted "tort


    reform" during several of his State of the State addresses. He also


    cited how he has pushed legislation to curb damages awarded by juries and


    toughen the standards for evidence that plaintiffs must meet.



    "Because I stood up with your help and proposed tort


    reform, the trial lawyers are generating hundreds of thousands of


    dollars for his campaign," Underwood said, referring to Democratic


    challenger Rep. Bob Wise, himself a lawyer.



    Underwood agreed with summit leaders that lawsuits hurt the


  • tate's business climate and are part of "what's wrong with West Virginia.

    He blamed the defeat of his tort proposals on a handful of


    legislators who are also lawyers, alleging that personal interests


    prompted them to "stand in the way of reform."



    "Divided loyalties are ice water for economic development," the


    governor said.



    When asked for his opinion, Wise adopted a different stance from


    his GOP rival.



    "This is one of those issues where if one side puts forth its case, and


    then the other side puts forth its case, we can have a great debate,"


    Wise said.



    Wise also called tort reform "one of those


    third-rail issues" that take second place in West Virginia to mountaintop


    removal mining and similar topics. "It hasn't gone anywhere," he said.



    Wise said he does support some reform proposals. He


    touted mediation, where both sides in a lawsuit sit down and talk toward a


    resolution with the help of a trained mediator. He also wants lawyers


    fined by judges and disciplined by the State Bar when they file frivolous





    Wise questioned whether trial lawyers form such important


  • upport for him as Underwood alleged. Lawyers who defend people and

    companies targeted in lawsuits also support his campaign, he said. They


    include his campaign manager and co-chairman of the state Democratic


    Party, who is a partner in a Charleston defense firm.



    The views expressed by Underwood and Wise at the summit


    generally reflect the public policy stances each has taken in office.


    Underwood has tackled the notion of tort reform


    during most of his term. Wise has coolly received proposed changes


    to the civil justice system.



    Underwood did not mention tort reform in his most


    recent State of the State address, and he did not introduce legislation on


    the subject during this year's session. But he pushed a sweeping proposal


    with the 1998 Legislature that targeted most aspects of the civil justice





    - Underwood supported changing how lawyers and clients reach


    "contingency fee" agreements, in which clients pledge a percentage of any


    damage award as payment to the lawyer. Underwood wanted such


    arrangements set in writing before a case proceeds. He also wanted the fee


    to be based on the damage award: the larger the award or settlement, the


    lower the percentage the lawyer receives as payment.



    - Underwood has embraced much of the state Chamber of Commerce's


  • tance regarding damage awards. Underwood's 1998 proposal would have

    curbed "punitive damages," or money meant to punish the defendant, be it a


    business or person, for their conduct. For corporate defendants, the


    limits would have been based on the company's size.



    - Underwood wants to similarly limit damages meant to compensate


    plaintiffs for such intangible things as "pain and suffering." They are


    called non-economic damages. Underwood has proposed caps


    proportionate to the amount awarded for such "economic damages" as lost


    wages or medical bills.



    - Underwood also wanted to toughen the standard of evidence that


    plaintiffs must meet to ask for punitive damages. His proposal would have


    also changed just how defendants are found liable when a lawsuit targets


    more than one person or business.



    Wise has usually voted against such proposals in Congress.


    Further, he has supported measures which would benefit the people who file


    lawsuits, as opposed to those they target:



    - Wise voted against a House bill introduced this year aimed at


    limiting damages reached against small businesses, defined as having 25 or


    fewer employees.



    - Wise voted against the most recent bill involving "product


    liability" lawsuits. Such suits target defective products. The legislation


    focused on certain types of goods and when they were made, setting time


    limits on when suits could be filed. After voting against the 1996


    measure, Wise also voted against overriding President Clinton's


    veto of the bill. The override effort failed.



    - Wise voted against last year's bill to protect tobacco


    companies from lawsuits targeting cigarettes and their health effects.



    - Wise did vote for one "tort reform" measure, a


    1999 bill to limit damages and liability in matters involving the Year


    2000 computer problem.



    - Wise voted for a bill passed by the House last year that would


    allow managed-care patients, or their survivors, to sue their health care


    plans. The plaintiffs would have to prove that a negligent decision by


    plan officials regarding health care resulted in needless injury or death.



    To contact staff writer Law-rence Messina, use e-mail or call 348-4869.




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