The State: Lawsuit Debate Gains Attention


From Staff and Wire Reports

More than 300 doctors, medical personnel and businesspeople turned out to voice support for limits on civil lawsuits in South Carolina Tuesday.PHOTO: BW; Supporters of a tort reform bill gather behind Rep. Bill Sandifer during Tuesday's news conference at the State House. TRAVIS BELL, THE STATE

The group met on the State House steps to push a bill being introduced in the Legislature. The measure would cap some damage awards, set a six-year limit on suits stemming from defective products and allow people who are sued to hold plaintiffs and their lawyers liable for frivolous actions.

“This bill does not keep anyone from suing an individual, a business or a health professional,” said Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, one of the bill’s sponsors.. “It simply makes those lawsuits fair to both parties.”

But Billy Nicholson, president of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, said the legal system in the state has settled disputes fairly for centuries. He said it doesn’t need to be changed just because insurance companies are feeling a pinch in their bottom lines because of the economic downturn.

“I don’t know how you can get any more of a level playing field than a jury of 12 people making a decision,” said Nicholson, a lawyer from Greenwood.

The main provisions of the bill would cap non-economic damages, like pain and suffering and economic distress at $250,000. No cap would be placed on actual damages.

Punitive damages, which are those awarded to punish a company for wrongdoing, also would be limited to $250,000, under the proposal.

Medical professionals claim rising malpractice insurance rates, driven by frivolous lawsuits and juries doling out huge awards, will restrict services available to patients and drive doctors out of the profession.

“The citizens of South Carolina are being victimized by a justice system gone awry,” said Dr. Duren Johnson, president of the South Carolina Medical Association. “We must restore the credibility of our justice system.”

Blaming higher insurance rates on trial lawyers and frivolous lawsuits is off-base, Nicholson said. He said the poor economy and corporate scandals have a lot more to do with rising premiums.

If this bill passes, insurance rates will not go down, Nicholson said.

“But each of you will have lost the right to fairness from the courts for each loss or injury caused by corporate fraud, drunk drivers, incompetent doctors, unscrupulous businesspeople, shoddy contractors or abusive caretakers,” he said.

Nicholson said lawmakers have rejected many of the components of the bill before. He said his group plans a vigorous battle.

“We’ll fight as hard as we have to make sure people keep their right to go to court,” Nicholson said.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: BW; Supporters of a tort reform bill gather behind Rep. Bill Sandifer during Tuesday’s news conference at the State House. TRAVIS BELL, THE STATE