ATLANTA – After
years of false starts, Republicans in the General Assembly have renewed their
push for tort reform in a big way.
bills moving through the Georgia Senate would make major changes in procedures
governing various types of civil lawsuits, including personal injury, medical
malpractice and product liability cases.
say tort reform is gaining advocates because of a growing number of large
damage awards Georgia juries have handed out in recent years, a trend that is
causing the state’s legal climate to plummet in national rankings.
Institute for Legal Reform rated Georgia’s civil justice system 41st
among the 50 states last year, down from 24th just seven years ago. The
American Tort Reform Association lists Georgia sixth on its 2019-2020 ranking
of Judicial Hellholes.
momentum behind this is these nuclear verdicts that keep coming out,” said Meagan
Hanson, a former member of the state House of Representatives now serving as
executive director of Georgians for Lawsuit Reform. “The entire business
community is feeling the pain of frivolous lawsuits.”
against tort reform are Georgia’s trial lawyers, who have successfully beaten
back years of attempts at overhauling the state’s civil justice system. The
last significant tort reform bill that made it through the legislature came in
2005, when lawmakers set a $350,000 cap on non-economic damage awards only to
see the Georgia Supreme Court rule the limit unconstitutional in 2010.
Trial Lawyers Association opposes this year’s crop of bills as a violation of
Georgians’ constitutional right to trial by jury.
legislation before the Senate stems from the work of a study committee that
adopted an ambitious set of tort reform proposals in December. Its
recommendations included prohibiting plaintiffs from seeking “phantom damages,”
compensatory damages beyond what a plaintiff will actually pay for medical care
or treatment, and making it harder for juries to find defendants guilty of “premise
liability,” negligence for injuries victims suffer on a home- or business
owner’s property at the hands of a third party.
committee also supported allowing defense lawyers in personal injury cases to
introduce into evidence whether an injured motorist was wearing a seatbelt at
the time of a crash. That recommendation has found its way into Senate Bill
226, a broader measure sponsored by Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, that expands
Georgia’s seatbelt requirement to the back seats of motor vehicles.
Public Safety Committee approved Robertson’s bill on Feb. 26.
reform bill, which cleared the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee Feb. 24, is
aimed at streamlining settlement offers so plaintiff lawyers can’t gum up the
system by tacking on additional non-monetary demands. Under Senate Bill 374, settlement
offers must contain only five terms: the time period within which an offer must
be accepted, the amount of the payment, the defendants who will be released
from a claim if the offer is accepted, whether the release is full or limited
and itemization of the claims to be released.
“We all know
the most important part of a settlement is paying the money,” said Jonathan
Adelman, an Atlanta lawyer who represents insurance companies. “We need to
eliminate the gamesmanship. There’s no place for it.”
But Jay Sadd,
a plaintiff lawyer in Sandy Springs and a past president of the Georgia Trial
Lawyers Association, said limiting settlement agreements to five terms is a
one-size-fits-all approach that would deprive insurance policyholders of the
right to make their own decisions on how to settle cases.
really is insurance companies deny claims, defend claims when they shouldn’t
and make low-ball offers,” he said. “We are worried about these material terms
being foisted on our citizens.”
Senate bills take a more comprehensive approach to tort reform, with multiple
390 is the longer of the two bills at 48 pages and includes many of the study
committee’s recommendations. But it has been sitting in the Senate Judiciary
Committee, which has yet to hold a hearing on it.
415, on the other hand, was sent to an Insurance and Labor subcommittee for a
thorough airing out, and cleared that panel on Friday. It’s a bit shorter than
Senate Bill 390 but contains many of the same provisions, including a limit on
the awarding of punitive damages in liability cases.
also contains the limits on premises liability the study committee recommended,
requires judges to give written instructions to juries and prohibits defense
lawyers from suggesting specific damage awards to juries, another suggestion
from the study committee.
Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chief sponsor of both bills, said passing meaningful tort
reform in Georgia is critical to the state’s business prospects.
reputation of Georgia’s civil justice system is being called into question
around the country,” he said. “Georgia’s reputation will continue to
deteriorate unless meaningful tort reform is achieved.”
Gooch said the
state’s consumers also have a stake in tort reform.
system drives up the cost of every item in a typical family budget [because]
businesses are burdened by this added cost,” he said,
Georgia Trial Lawyers Association said Gooch’s tort reform measures would diminish
judges’ ability to manage their court dockets while reducing negligent parties’
responsibility for the harm they cause.
bills 390 and 415] are a sweeping overthrow of our judiciary that benefits
insurance companies at the expense of our citizens who have been harmed by the
negligence of others,” the association wrote in a prepared statement.
374 is scheduled for a vote of the full Senate on Monday. Meanwhile, the full
Industry and Labor Committee is expected to vote on Senate Bill 415 early in
ATLANTA – Criminal justice advocates are pushing for Georgia to pass legislation this year aimed at restricting public access to certain criminal convictions when seeking jobs or housing.
More than 4.4 million people have a criminal record of at least an arrest in Georgia, totaling nearly half the state’s population, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Several bills before the General Assembly would let a large portion of those people shield their criminal records from public viewing if they are not currently allowed under state law to do so. Law enforcement agencies would still have access to the records.
Supporters say passing second-chance
legislation would turn around the lives of people who have been denied good
jobs and housing due to a criminal background.
Those people would include Marietta
defense attorney Kim Frye’s father, who she said still cannot purchase a gun
after he was arrested 40 years ago for buying a weapon at a pawn shop. Frye
said her father’s case has sat on the court “dead docket” for decades,
languishing without a final judicial ruling while continuing to pop up in
“This is truly your permanent record,”
Frye said about minor offenses like her father’s.
State law currently requires people with certain downgraded charges, vacated convictions and dead-docket cases to petition a court for restricting records. Only certain misdemeanor convictions can be shielded such as for alcohol-related charges, first-time drug possession and crimes committed before age 21.
So far, none of the roughly half-dozen
bills on records restriction still alive this legislative session has moved
past the committee stage for a full House or Senate vote.
The most recently filed measure, Senate Bill 288, would automatically restrict public access to most kinds of criminal convictions and arrest histories, except for several major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation.
The bill would shield records of felony
charges if 10 years have passed since the sentence was completed. That would
also apply for overturned convictions and any charges that never led to a
Its sponsor, Sen. Tonya Anderson, said
expanding records-restriction rights could dramatically turn around the lives
of millions of Georgians whose minor offenses have kept them at a perpetual
economic and social disadvantage.
“This bill would bring about a great
economic change to Georgia,” said Anderson, D-Lithonia, at a hearing of her
bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Communities will be safer,” she
continued, “and the economy will improve so that those who have been
rehabilitated can have a second chance to take care of their families and be
reunited in society after having served their sentences.”
Other bills, filed by both Democratic and
Republican lawmakers in both chambers, propose different thresholds for having
records restricted. They include ranges of wait times after sentences have been
completed, from zero to five or more years for felonies.
Concerns remain over specifics about the
time needed to elapse before records could be hidden, said Houston County
Solicitor General Amy Smith, president of the Georgia Association of Solicitors
She said some crimes like family violence
and stalking should not be shielded, but that her organization overall supports
the concept of broadening records restrictions in Georgia.
“We are not opposed and never have been to
records restrictions in certain circumstances and under certain conditions,”
Smith said. “[But] we have concerns about particulars in all of the bills that
Transparency issues could also crop up if second-chance legislation results in hiding instance of repeated crimes that indicate patterns of behavior like drug abuse, said Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Relaxing restriction rules too much might also increase chances for abuses of power by persons or organizations able to sweep misbehavior under the rug, he said.
“I am very sensitive to concerns about people wanting to rebuild their lives,” Griffiths said. “We can’t do that without building in protections for the public to understand what’s happening in the courts and what’s happening in society.”
State lawmakers passed second-chance
legislation in 2012 that expanded restriction rights for people whose charges
did not result in convictions. But Georgia has fallen behind in recent years
compared to other states, said Brenda Smeeton, legal director for the nonprofit
Georgia Justice Project.
She cited a recent study from the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center that found Georgia is one of three states that have not passed any second-chance legislation in recent years.
“The reality is that the vast majority of
the people that come to our office … can’t be helped under the current law
because it is so limited,” Smeeton said.
Limited job and housing opportunities also hurt programs that help people transition back into society once they are released from prison, said Brendan Spaar, a board member of the Greater Gwinnett Reentry Alliance.
Shielding records of people who have paid their dues would help erase the biases of employers and landlords inclined to deny life-changing opportunities over a long-gone criminal offense.
“If they can’t see it and it’s not really relevant to the job, then does it really matter?” Spaar said.
Anderson said she does not know if her
second-chance bill will be scheduled for a vote in the judiciary committee.
ATLANTA – The
Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Friday that
would add training and staffing requirements to the living facilities housing a
growing number of elderly Georgians.
which passed 160-1 and now heads to the state Senate, would apply to assisted-living
and personal-care homes with 25 beds or more and add a new category called
memory care units for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,
which would have extra security including locked wards to keep confused
residents from wandering away.
would require at least one direct-care staff member be on duty at each home for
every 15 senior residents during waking hours and one for every 20 residents at
or registered professional nurse would have to be on site at assisted living
facilities for at least eight hours per week. All staff would have to undergo
training in caring for elderly and disabled residents,
The bill also
would require the homes to notify residents in writing at least 60 days in
advance of impending bankruptcy proceedings or evictions.
people consider these facilities their home,” Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta,
the measure’s chief sponsor, told her House colleagues Friday. “They don’t need
to get one week’s notice that they have to go out and find somewhere else to
Georgia’s elderly population is increasing at four times the rate of the rest
of the state’s population, as the Peach State grows in popularity among
the atmosphere and weather of Georgia,” she said. “Many are bypassing Florida
now to make their homes in Georgia.”
ATLANTA – Gov.
Brian Kemp named an 18-member task force Friday to handle Georgia’s response to
the coronavirus outbreak.
acted following a morning phone conversation with Vice President Mike Pence,
who is heading the Trump administration’s federal response effort to the virus,
which also goes by the name COVID-19.
administration understands that states and local governments are standing on
the front lines of COVID-19,” Kemp said. “In accordance with the
administration’s initiatives, Georgia’s coronavirus task force represents a
coalition of subject-matter experts from the private and public sectors who
will work together on preventative measures, strategic deployment of resources
and collaboration across all levels of government.”
As of Friday afternoon, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia. Fourteen cases of the virus – which originated in China – have been diagnosed in the United States.
“We’re asking everyone to remain calm,” Kemp told reporters during a briefing Friday afternoon. “We have no confirmed cases in Georgia, but we want to be prepared for whatever comes our way.”
The new task
force will include Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management
& Homeland Security Agency; Felipe den Brok, director of Atlanta’s Office
of Emergency Preparedness; state Attorney General Chris Carr; Dr. Kathleen
Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health; and Cherie
Drenzek, the state epidemiologist.
General Assembly, Kemp named House Health and Human Services Committee Chairman
Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, to the task force, along with Senate Health and
Human Services Committee Chairman Ben Watson, R-Savannah.
academia, the governor tapped Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the University
System of Georgia; Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Technical College System of
Georgia; and state School Superintendent Richard Woods.
Health-care professionals on the task force include John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health System, and Dr. Colleen Kraft, director of Emory University’s Clinical Virology Research Laboratory.
“We have a robust plan in place,” Toomey said. “We’re working with other state agencies and partners to make sure we have all the systems in place to respond.”
Toomey said the state is working with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify travelers returning to Georgia, particularly from China.
Toomey said the best way to keep from getting the virus is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water and avoid touching your mouth or nose. To prevent spreading the virus, she said Georgians should stay home when they’re sick and cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.
ATLANTA – Legislation has been filed in the Georgia House to clean up issues with the state’s lucrative film tax credit following a pair of scathing audits released last month.
House Bill 1037, sponsored by state Rep. Matt Dollar, would require all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Department of Revenue. The revenue agency could set up a credentialing program and contract auditing tasks out to third parties under the bill.
It would also tighten rules for how film
companies could transfer or sell unused tax credits to other businesses, a
common practice for production groups that conduct part of their movie-making
work outside Georgia.
Dollar, R-Marietta, said his measure
would improve watchdog rules for the popular film tax credit program that have
not been updated in more than a decade.
“In my opinion, this is something that is
very needed and very healthy,” Dollar said.
But he faced criticism Thursday over a
provision in the bill that would expand the tax credit to media coverage and
broadcasts of large special sporting events that happen infrequently, like the
Some members of a House working group
looking at film credits questioned the need for adding those sports broadcasts
to the credit list, noting state lawmakers are keen to tidy up deficiencies
with the existing program rather than expand it further.
“Pay the people that cover it? They’re
going to cover it anyway,” said Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany.
Dollar said the state was potentially
leaving money on the table by not incentivizing more marquee sporting events
with the tax incentive.
The House Working Group on Creative Arts
and Entertainment did not vote on the measure Thursday.
Dollar’s bill follows back-to-back reports from the state Department of Audits and Accounts that found Georgia’s film tax credit has been poorly managed while being touted as having more economic impact on the state than it actually does.