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LOBBYIST RENEWS PUSH FOR CAP ON AWARDS

Apr 13, 1999

April 13, 1999

The Montgomery Advertiser

Lobbyist Renews Push for Cap on Awards

By Mike Cason

Montgomery Advertiser

A business lobbyist renewed the push on Monday to limit how much money juries can award to punish wrongdoers in civil cases.

John McMillan, a timber industry lobbyist and head of the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, urged the Legislature to pass a bill capping punitive awards at three times the financial damage to a victim. There is no limit for punitive damages under current state law.

"We still have a huge lawsuit abuse problem in Alabama," McMillan said.

The president of Alabama's plaintiffs' lawyer organization, meanwhile, said limits aren't needed because punitive damages are already a rarity.

"Every year we seem to have the perennial issue of tort reform," said Gregory Breedlove, president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association. "We believe there's no reason for tort reform in Alabama."

Breedlove cited statistics from the state court system's 1997 annual report: Of 41,670 civil cases filed in Alabama circuit courts, only 110 resulted in punitive damage awards, which totaled $ 49.8 million. Three cases had punitive damage awards of $ 1 million or more.

"Alabama's laws are already decidedly in favor of businesses over consumers," Breedlove said. "It's extremely difficult for a plaintiff to go to court and win a verdict in a civil case."

The state judicial system does not yet have statistics available for 1998.

In 1997, only 2 percent of civil cases filed ever reached a jury. Of those, only 1 in 16 resulted in punitive damages. The plaintiffs prevailed in 48 percent of cases decided by jury, while the defendants prevailed in 44 percent.

Matt McDonald, chief attorney for the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, said most businesses settle lawsuits for fear of going to court.

"Alabama is viewed as a state very friendly to plaintiffs," McDonald said.

Tort reform bills have died in the Legislature for at least the last four years. They have typically passed the House, moved to the Senate Judiciary Committee and died there, never emerging for a vote by the Senate. Tort reform advocates blamed Gov. Don Siegelman, who was then lieutenant governor, and influence by the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association for killing the bills.

McMillan said he believed new Senate leadership, with Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, would make sure tort reform got a fair shot.

Barron said they would.

"I think the chances are very good of passing some bills," Barron said.

"I feel very strong that we must have some reasonable tort reform."

TORT REFORM BILLS

The Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee is proposing seven bills to change the state's civil justice laws:

Capping punitive damages at three times compensatory damages

Capping damages for mental anguish at three times compensatory damages and requiring corroborating testimony from medical professionals

Placing a two-year statute of limitations on civil fraud, with an extension to four years in some cases

Requiring that defendants have a chance for a hearing before a civil case is certified as a class action

Requiring civil cases to be heard in counties where the wrong occurred or where the defendant is located

Changing the interest rate that accrues on damage awards, which begin to accrue after a judgment is entered, from 12 percent to the rate of one-year Treasury Bills

Exempting retailers, wholesalers and other distributors from damage claims stemming from manufacturing defects in products.

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