Alabama Lawmakers Pass Bills to Limit Lawsuit Abuse

By BOB JOHNSON | June 1, 2011

The Alabama Legislature has taken another step toward erasing the state’s one-time reputation for juries returning big cash lawsuit verdicts.

The Alabama House gave final approval Thursday to three bills aimed at curtailing what some consider lawsuit abuse. The state once had a reputation as the place to go to find a jury that would return a multi-million dollar verdict.

Forbes Magazine once dubbed Alabama to be “tort hell” because of the size of verdicts and the ease of filing lawsuits.

The Legislature passed packages of bills in 1987 and again in 1999 aimed at making it harder to get those kinds of verdicts.

Twelve years later, lawmakers have approved another package of bills. Passage came in the first session after Republicans took control of the House and Senate. One bill limits where lawsuits can be filed in wrongful death cases. Matt McDonald, general counsel for the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, said that legislation prevents attorneys from shopping for a favorable venue to file lawsuits.

Other bills that passed Tuesday reduce the amount of interest from 12 percent to 7.5 percent that a plaintiff can collect on a jury award while the verdict is being appealed and reduces from 12 years to seven years the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit against an architect or a builder.

One key bill in the package is expected to come up for debate in the House on Tuesday. It would put restrictions on who could testify as an expert witness in lawsuits and limit what critics called “junk science” theories of how the crime occurred.

Courtney French, president of the Alabama Association for Justice, previously known as the Trial Lawyers Association, said the bills were changed some in lengthy negotiations and he feels the current versions are fair to both sides and do not take away a person’s right to go to court.

“We wanted to make sure that in the event of a tort injury or neglect or wanton conduct that people still have a remedy at law,” said French, a Birmingham attorney.

As an example, he said the bill concerning expert witnesses contains language that limits expert witnesses for both the plaintiff and for the defense.

“The bill protects both sides and the integrity of the process,” French said.

McDonald said while Alabama has improved its overall system of handling lawsuits, there is still a perception that the courts favor plaintiffs over defendants in lawsuits.

He said he hopes the new legislation will improve that perception.

“As we have improved our overall civil justice system, there are still pockets that are viewed by business that if you get sued in that county in Alabama you have a stacked deck against you,” McDonald said.

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