The Associated Press

Committee approves three bills to limit lawsuits

By Phillip Rawls

Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- For the first time in five years, a state Senate committee approved bills to limit lawsuits, including putting a cap on some punitive damage verdicts. But the bills pleased neither business groups nor plaintiff lawyers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly for three bills after splitting 8-7 on several procedural votes. The procedural votes were over whether to use versions of the bills favored by the Senate's Democratic majority or by allies of Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom. Windom's side, which was aligned with several business groups, lost every vote.

Windom said he was pleased the committee approved some tort bills after sitting on them for the last four years, but they won't solve the state's problem with big jury verdicts.

"It's not tort reform. It's tort deform," he said.

But Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said, "This is a reasonable package that neither the trial lawyers nor all of business are totally pleased with."

Barron, who voted for all three bills, said he hopes to have them up for debate in the Senate on Tuesday. He said they would probably be the only pieces of lawsuit legislation considered by the Senate this session because of time constraints.

The bills would:

-Cap punitive damage verdicts in consumer fraud cases, but not in cases involving injury or death. The caps would vary according to the size of the business being sued, but they would not apply in class-action lawsuits. Currently, there are no caps, but judges review verdicts to see if they are excessive.

-Limit where lawsuits can be filed to a company's principal place of business, the plaintiff's home county at the time of the alleged incident, and the county where the alleged incident took place. A plaintiff could no longer move to a new county and file a suit there to improve his chances in court.

-Make sure a company has a chance to be heard in court before a judge turns a lawsuit into class-action litigation representing all of the company's customers, and give both sides in a lawsuit one chance to appeal a judge's decision on class-action status. This bill incorporates recent decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court that limited class-action lawsuits.

The Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee has been pushing seven bills to limit lawsuits. The bill on class-action lawsuits was the only bill approved by the committee that resembled what the ACJRC wanted.

ACJRC Chairman John McMillan of Montgomery said he was disappointed with most of the provisions of the bills, but at least the Senate has some lawsuit legislation to debate. He said his group would try to get the Senate to strengthen the bills during the debate next week.

Greg Breedlove of Mobile, president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, said there was no need for the legislation. "Business is doing better in Alabama now that it's ever done," he said.

Gov. Don Siegelman urged the committee to approve some lawsuit legislation "so we can put this issue aside - put it aside for the right reasons - so we can focus our attention on education."

If the Legislature approves the bills, Siegelman said he is ready to meet with the editorial boards of business publications to tell them how Alabama has "balanced the scale of justice."

McMillan praised Siegelman for making the offer. "The biggest thing on whether we've solved this problem is what the national media thinks," he said.

Lawyers Involved: