WISE, UNDERWOOD AT ODDS ON TORT REFORM
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
- 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.