Budget stalemate bogs down legislation to tamp down jury awards

Legislation to make harder for juries to deliver big awards appears stalled as the General Assembly nears the end of its session. Business-backed groups pushed for more restrictive options in cases of negligence and malpractice. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Georgia leaders boast it’s the “No. 1 state for business,” slapping the brand on stickers, websites, photo-op backdrops and peppering it in political speeches.

But some business-backed groups with members that tend to get sued complain that civil courts in Georgia are more likely than other places in the country to hand out big judgments in cases of negligence and malpractice.

Citing a poor report card on lawsuit climate from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, a Georgia Senate study committee met several times starting in summer 2019 to hear from businesses, trade associations and lawyers who specialize in defending against personal injury lawsuits and product liability cases, as well as trial lawyers. Despite the time lawmakers invested and the big push by business interests and medical associations to tamp down big judgments, lawmakers might not push the insurance industry-friendly recommendations of the study committee across the finish line in 2020.

Not surprisingly, Georgia’s trial lawyers disagree with the study committee’s findings. Their clients sue over malpractice, product liability and negligence. The association argues that Georgia’s economic success is evidence that the state’s civil liability laws are not a drag on business growth.

Since the Supreme Court of Georgia threw out a legislative cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases about a decade ago, the American Tort Reform Association kept a close watch on the state, its president Sherman Joyce told the study committee last year. The foundation calls itself a coalition of business, corporations, municipalities, associations and professional firms in court filings.

Joyce’s group has gone to the trouble to trademark “Judicial Hellholes.” That’s a regular report in which the foundation ranks jurisdictions it contends judges are generally unfair to civil suit defendants. Georgia comes in at No. 5 in the most recent ranking.

The association argued in friend of the court briefs in several Georgia cases that defendants like Ford and Chrysler have been mistreated by courts or juries.

Joyce called for Georgia to allow more information to be heard as evidence in court cases, such as whether a person injured in a car crash was wearing a seat belt; or the negotiated real price of a botched medical procedure instead of the often higher sticker price.

At the end of the year, the state Senate committee recommended capping punitive damages for product liability of $250,000. Punitive damages are now uncapped. The committee also recommends allowing jurors to be told if someone injured in a car crash was wearing a seat belt.

But with more than one-quarter of the session’s 40 annual working days done, time might already be too short for such contentious proposals to advance this year. Any legislation would be what some call a “lawyer bill” mostly understood by lawyers, packed with Latin words and arcane legal concepts.

Moreover, lawmakers are now grappling with a more pressing challenge. The governor ordered budget cuts across most state departments and the state House Speaker says his chamber will take as much time as necessary to craft next year’s $28.1 billion budget.

Asked if Senate Republicans are likely to act on the study committee’s recommendations, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton said the civil lawsuit questions deserved the attention of the study committee. But he wouldn’t rate the chances of potential legislation, saying only that the budget is a nearly all-consuming topic of conversation.

The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association will certainly have something to say if the report does result in legislation this session. Some of the recommendations might be workable in some way, said association president, Dan Snipes. But most of them, he said, “would severely limit the rights of Georgia citizens to have a fair civil trial as allowed by law.”

Snipes ruled out any support for the plan to allow juries to know the negotiated price of a medical procedure.

If the sticker price of a medical procedure is $10,000, that can be introduced in court. But insurance companies want jurors to see the lower negotiated cost.

The proposed cap of $250,000 on punitive damages is unreasonable, Snipes said, and is not a sufficient penalty to get the attention of large, multinational corporations.

Snipes said the report represents just one side of complex issues and that the committee wasn’t very representative of the residents of Georgia.

“They chose to select people for this committee that just represented business interests and the insurance interests,” Snipes said.

Georgia’s court system works as it should, he said. “As reflected by our economic success and ability to attract new businesses.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is on board with the study committee’s report.

“We love the caps on punitive damages. We love the seatbelt law, we love anything that’s going to make the playing field more fair,” said its president, Chris Clark, after its legislative breakfast early last month.

“And we’re going to wait and look and see what that first bill draft looks like,” Clark said.

State Sen. John Wilkinson, a Toccoa Republican who chaired the study committee, said the overarching concern of his group was to be fair to business, but to also make sure consumers are protected and have recourse in fair court proceedings.

He said he will defer to other committee members to file legislation based on the report.