Tort Reform Takes Back Seat in Alabama’s Race for Governor

October 19, 2010

Huge jury verdicts, once potent political issues in a state known as “tort hell,” are getting little mention in this year’s race for Alabama governor.

Dr. Robert Bentley, the Republican nominee, has called for limits on medical malpractice suits, but he has not made it a major issue on the campaign trail.

Democratic nominee Ron Sparks makes no mention of liability lawsuits in his campaign speeches.

It’s a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when Alabama was known as a “judicial hellhole” and a drive to put checks on damage awards, known as “tort reform,” was a campaign lightning rod for gubernatorial candidates.

The leader of a coalition of business groups said the legal situation in Alabama has been fairly stable since the Legislature put limits on large jury verdicts in 1999.

“It’s one of those issues that’s not on the front burner now,” said Tom Dart, chairman of the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, which pushed for the changes.

Dart sees several reasons the issue gets little mention this election year.

“A lot of younger business leaders today didn’t experience the lawsuit abuse of the 1980s and early 1990s,” he said.

Also, many business leaders feel that if they get a bad verdict in a local court, the Alabama Supreme Court will correct it. “Twenty years ago that wasn’t happening,” he said.

Over the past two decades, the court went from being dominated by Democrats who had the backing of plaintiffs’ lawyers to one dominated by Republicans supported by business interests.

Perhaps the most telling moment occurred in August when Republican legislative candidates released their “Republican Handshake with Alabama.” It addressed many issues, but not “lawsuit abuse.”

In the governor’s race, Bentley is the only one who has brought up litigation.

The retired dermatologist says doctors are practicing defensive medicine and driving up medical costs to protect themselves against patients’ lawsuits. He said he will ask the Legislature to start limiting non-economic damage, such as for pain and mental anguish, to a maximum of $250,000. That “would end the practice of ordering unnecessary, expensive tests simply to avoid lawsuits,” he said.

Bentley also advocates limiting product liability claims to only those who knowingly create a hazard, which would provide more protection to wholesalers and retailers of products.

Sparks says it’s not an issue he’s addressing or that he hears brought up by voters as he travels the state. But he said that if a problem arises, he will appoint a task force to recommend action.

Former Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley, one of Alabama’s most successful plaintiff lawyers, says litigation should be an issue because he believes the courts have swung too far toward the business side.

He cites decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court throwing out $3.5 billion in punitive damages that the state government won against Exxon Mobil in a dispute over natural gas royalties. He also points to verdicts totaling more than $274 million that the high court struck down after the state government won lawsuits accusing drug companies of overpricing prescriptions for Alabamians on Medicaid.

“People who deal with the courts will tell you the consumer has little chance of winning,” said Beasley, who represented the state government in both cases.

Skip Tucker, executive director of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, agrees with Beasley on one thing: Lawsuit issues should be getting more discussion. But he wants more done to protect businesses, including embracing Bentley’s ideas.

Tucker pointed out that the Legislature passed the current limits on lawsuits in 1999 only after Democrat Don Siegelman was elected governor and pushed for passage. Before that, the Legislature had spent more than a decade fighting over the issue.

“It has been shown time and time again that in order to pass tort reform a state’s governor has to personally support tort reform and work it,” Tucker said.

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