For The Record

Influential lawmakers propose to help insurers, businesses with ‘tort reform’

By: - February 24, 2020 7:42 am

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case that stalled for two months until the arrest of Greg and Travis McMichael last week. Pixabay

Georgia leaders make a habit of selling its warm business climate, but some lawmakers say courtrooms around the state aren’t so hospitable to companies and professionals that tend to get sued.

State Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, recently filed 47 pages of legislation that are as wide-ranging as the recommendations from a summer study committee on reducing the cost of doing business.

But lawyers who represent people who are injured getting medical treatment or using faulty products say that business cost reduction would come at the expense of victims. 

Senate Bill 390 increases information that could be shared with juries, such as whether a person injured in a car crash was wearing a seatbelt, or how much their insurance paid on a medical procedure that went awry. Companion legislation, Senate Bill 415, provides for a variety of courtroom limitations friendly to insurance companies exposed to large jury awards.

Neither bill proposes a cap on punitive damages in product liability cases. But the bills do strike through the sections of existing law that specify there is no cap on punitive damages. Gooch has some influential GOP co-sponsors on both bills.

Gooch said he wants Georgia to move up from No. 41 in a major U.S. Chamber of Commerce state business climate survey, to more like 25 or so.

When litigation is expensive for companies, Gooch said, that can close small businesses or trickle down to individual insurance premiums. 

But Georgia’s trial lawyers, the attorneys who usually represent the injured person and not the car manufacturer or doctor who makes an error, said the legislation is an attempt to limit the right to civil trial by jury by restricting access to courts.

“This … is a sweeping overthrow of our judiciary that benefits insurance companies and big business at the expense of our citizens who have been harmed by the negligence of others,” the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association said in an emailed statement.

Ten years ago the Georgia Supreme Court struck down 2005 state legislation that capped non-economic damages that juries could award. Business interests and insurance companies have prevailed upon state lawmakers to tip the scales back toward their favor in the years since. 

“There’s a lot of testimony to be heard,” Gooch said Friday, and he anticipates amendments.

The trial lawyers have said Georgia is doing just fine economically and is no “judicial hellhole” as one business-backed lobby group labels it. 

Indeed, Georgia’s elected leaders tend to label the state with the same title it’s been given by a trade magazine for years: “No. 1 for business.”

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008. Her written work and data journalism has appeared in online and print outlets including The (Macon) Telegraph, Creative Loafing and SaportaReport.com.

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