Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trial lawyers want a voice in tort reform

RALEIGH North Carolina is almost certain to restrict medical malpractice and other types of lawsuits this year, thanks to a Republican-controlled General Assembly that has made that one of its top priorities.

At stake are the rights of those who have been harmed to be fairly compensated, balanced against the need to protect doctors and others from unfair lawsuits, and to control insurance costs. That tug-of-war has been playing out in legislators' offices and in committee meetings in recent weeks. Another is scheduled for Thursday.

But the lawyers who sue on behalf of injured people are complaining that lawmakers have cut them out of the process and are only listening to corporate interests behind closed doors. GOP legislators don't see it that way, and counter that they are listening to all sides.

N.C. Advocates for Justice, the state trial attorneys' organization, contends that when major changes to criminal and civil procedures have come up in previous years they were part of the discussion from the beginning. They say in those days - before the last election - all sides would try to find common ground in a deliberative process that went on for some time before a bill ever showed up in committee.

But now, Dick Taylor, chief executive officer for the lawyers' group, says the Republican-controlled General Assembly is rushing through one-sided bills with limited input.

"This is the most sweeping proposed set of changes in our justice system in my career, and only one side is at the table," Taylor said on Thursday.

Rep. Daniel McComas, a veteran Republican House member from New Hanover County who co-chairs the House Select Committee on Tort Reform, disagrees and says he has met with the trial lawyers.

"I've had an open-door policy," he said Friday. "We've had speakers from both sides. Everyone has known the process would take place. We're looking at amendments. I think we're being very fair and very even-handed."

Of course, there's an element of the shoe being on the other foot now that Republicans are in charge. The trial attorneys have traditionally been big financial supporters of Democratic candidates. Last year they contributed nearly half a million dollars to statewide candidates, with half of that going to those running for the General Assembly. Not all of it went to Democrats.

ALEC 'boot camp'

Some of the trial attorneys' fears have been bolstered by the presence of special-interest groups other than their own now having ringside seats with those running the show. Taylor says one group, the free-market advocates American Legislative Exchange Council, "foments very conservative, anti-consumer legislation."

Last month about two dozen legislators met with ALEC in the auditorium of the General Assembly building for what it calls a "boot camp," where lawmakers discussed the organization's ideas for changes in medical malpractice and other civil law reforms.

The next day, Lincoln County Republican Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, co-chairman of the tort reform committee, presented a draft version of a bill that went much further than the medical malpractice bill passed in the Senate. Until it was changed last week, it would have protected virtually any product from liability in lawsuits, among other proposals.

Rhyne permitted only one speaker at the committee meeting that day: John Del Giorno, a GlaxoSmithKline executive who serves on ALEC's private sector board, because Del Giorno couldn't attend the following week's meeting when speakers were invited.

ALEC has put on presentations in North Carolina before, and General Assembly members have traveled to its meetings. Rep. Harold Brubaker, a Randolph County Republican, is on its national board, was the national chairman in 1994, and in 2009 was honored by the association. Along with GSK's Del Giorno, Reynolds-American vice president for state governmental affairs David Powers also serves on the group's private enterprise board.

Rep. Fred Steen, a Rowan County Republican, is the North Carolina state chairman for the group. He says he got involved several years ago and likes the way it comes up with model legislation. He said the model laws are crafted after lengthy debate, and are valuable to lawmakers. He said it's no different than belonging to the National Conference of State Legislators, a resource group that is politically impartial.

By Craig Jarvis,

Source: The Charlotte Observer Newspaper

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