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 
  • 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 lawsuits.  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 debate:  - 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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