Bill to tamp down civil jury awards flounders on Senate floor

    Sen. Steve Gooch and Sen. William Ligon discuss Gooch's "tort reform" bill that would tilt civil court negligence cases more in favor of business and insurers. It stalled in the Senate Tuesday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    A sweeping bill to limit jury awards and punitive damages stalled in the Senate Tuesday as the odds for tort legislation to pass this year grew longer.

    Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, said the aim of his Senate Bill 415 is to rein in out-of-control damages in civil cases which he said drive up insurance rates and encourage doctors and other professionals to leave Georgia.

    Gooch referenced several headline-grabbing cases in which companies paid out tens of millions to crime victims who suffered on their property.

    Among Gooch’s Republican colleagues to speak against his bill, Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford said big payouts to victims are often justified and encourage business owners to provide necessary safety improvements.

    The bill is favored by business groups and insurance companies that argue large jury awards cost consumers, but opposed by trial lawyers who say victims of negligence deserve compensation.

    Another bill sponsor, Macon Republican Sen. John Kennedy, said the real victims in Georgia’s current civil justice system are small businesses.

    “You’re talking about small mom and pop trucking companies whose premiums are doubling and tripling inside a year,” Kennedy said. “Nobody looks at our premiums in this state for automobiles or anything else on the spectrum and says ‘That’s a pretty healthy environment.'”

    Republican Sen. Jesse Stone chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose members include trial lawyers. The Waynesboro attorney chastised his fellow senators for allowing the bill to pass through the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee that bypassed input from lawyers.

    “This is a complicated bill with serious ramifications for our legal system,” Stone said. “It should never have been assigned to a committee that has no attorneys in its membership.”

    Stone said the bill attempts to cover too much ground. It would make significant changes to six titles in Georgia code, he said. The proposed changes would revise laws affecting seat belt use, asbestos victims, instructions for juries and more.

    Unterman agreed the proposed revisions were too broad.

    “This isn’t a little bite out of the apple, this is a whole apple. This is the whole dadgum crate,” she said. “You know what we’re doing? Picking up the books, the Georgia code section, and we are literally throwing it out the window.”

    She said even if the bill were to pass the Senate, it would not likely find favor in the House where House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican who practices law in Blue Ridge, recently set up a committee to study tort legislation.

    “When it goes across the hall to the House, what’s going to happen? It’s going to sit right there on the Speaker’s desk,” she said. “So we are sitting here, we are struggling, we are passing this massive bill, and it’s going to go right over there, and guess what? It’s probably going to be dead in the water.”

    Gooch said the bill is not intended to benefit insurance companies at the expense of lawyers or to harm victims who legitimately deserve payouts, but to ensure civil trials are fair.

    He pledged to move forward with the bill with the same breath he asked to table it.

    “Let’s pass this bill, let’s send it to the House, I’m sure it’s going to get a good scrubbing over there, and we’ll see what they come back with,” he said. “In light of the hour, we want to keep moving, we have a long schedule ahead of us the rest of the night, we have a long calendar, when I get back to my desk, I’m going to ask for unanimous consent to table this bill, and we’re going to move on with business, but we can’t stop trying to balance the scales of justice in Georgia.”

    A motion to table passed after over two hours of debate 27 to 26.

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.