Learning From Mississippi’s Miracle

Posted February 4, 2005 at 2:41pm

Three years ago, civil justice reformers described Mississippi as “the jackpot justice capital of America” and a “judicial hellhole.” One county with a population of just 9,740 had more than 21,000 plaintiffs. In only seven years, Mississippi experienced more than 50 verdicts of $1 million, 20 verdicts exceeding $9 million and six greater than $100 million. Eight medical malpractice cases produced $61 million in damages, and 12 cases against businesses dealt $893 million in punitive damages alone. In one week alone, 470 doctors were sued. From 1995 to 2003, juries awarded more than $1.8 billion in suits in Mississippi.

Many insurance companies quit operating in the state. Doctors were turning away patients or leaving Mississippi. Hospitals and clinics were closing. In one year, the state lost a third of its neurosurgeons. Consumer costs increased 5 percent more than under a better judicial climate — a “tort inflation” driving up costs on food and medicine and clothes and school supplies.

Then came the Mississippi miracle and today, Mississippi is open for business. Our courts throw out frivolous lawsuits, allowing true victims to seek justice. Judges dismiss out-of-state claims against out-of-state defendants, allowing Mississippi’s justice system to deal with our own needs. Insurance companies are coming back. Doctors are staying. The economy is growing.

Civil justice reform through legislation and election made the difference. State Sen. Charlie Ross (R) authored the Mississippi tort reform bill and prepared a paper for the American Tort Reform Association outlining our successful techniques. I’ve modified his suggestions to address the challenges facing Congress.

First, we must define “tort reform,” explaining the problem in common, ordinary terms and setting forth a particular set of ideas and policies: focused, simple and specific. People must know what “it” is before they can know if they are for “it” or against “it.” For consensus and support, this must be a debate over clear ideas Members can explain to districts and colleagues.

Second, the bill must conform to common sense: a general concept of fairness the average person can understand outside the courtroom. Before our reforms in Mississippi, a co-defendant could be found 1 percent responsible but pay 50 percent of the verdict. People understood that was unfair and supported a change.

Third, everything must be justified on its own merits. No provision in the Mississippi reform bill was inconsistent with the fairness of the full bill. Nothing was included to curry favor with a particular interest group or even to be used as negotiating material. There were no “poster child” issues opponents could use to derail the policy.

Fourth, we must communicate in plain language. Lawyers understand “several liability” and “forum non conveniens,” but most constituents do not. What people do understand is fairness. Legalese will not only cloud the issue, but also will convince the public this is a battle between special interest groups instead of a fight for fairness.

Fifth, as we know in Congress, elections matter. In Mississippi, elections based largely on civil justice reform delivered better judges, better legislators and Gov. Haley Barbour (R). Barbour defeated an incumbent governor by campaigning aggressively on this issue and did not relent once he took office. We got tort reform. On the federal level, we just had an election where many of us, including President Bush, campaigned on this same issue. We won. Now we should move forward on our mandate.

Sixth, we must effectively use the bully pulpit. President Ronald Reagan demonstrated that taking our message to the people produces results. We must partner with presidential leadership to effectively make the case for civil justice reform.

Seventh, the message reaches families when their local doctor is the messenger. We trust accountants with money; we trust lawyers with contracts; but we trust our doctors with our lives. The “white coats” became an effective and familiar image at civil justice reform press events in Mississippi.

Eighth, we must stand united. If business and medicine and manufacturing work for civil justice reform, they must not attempt to cut their own deal. Our opponents in Mississippi attempted to divide us, but leadership demanded comprehensive civil justice reform and anything less would not have been satisfactory. We toughed it out together and won.

Ninth, this must be a grassroots movement. If we argue for common sense and fairness, we will earn the support of America’s majority. Grass-roots organizations made the change in Mississippi. They called legislators, wrote newspapers and campaigned for tort-reform candidates. They united business interests, manufacturers, the health care industry and doctors to spread the message in their communities. They visited the state capitol to lobby in person and took their concerns to the ballot box. Opposition was swept aside by the rising political tide delivering new leaders and reform.

Finally, we must have “fire in the belly” to win. Going into the tort reform special session in Mississippi, we didn’t have the votes to win but they didn’t have the votes to adjourn. We outlasted, outfought and prevailed over the obstructionists. Those fighting for a vision and an agenda will have the strength to overcome those who only oppose progress. A clear, fair, unified message supported by the people will prevail and bring balance to our civil justice system. The American people deserve better than what we have today.

Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) is vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.