ATLANTA – After years of false starts, Republicans in the General Assembly have renewed their push for tort reform in a big way.
Several GOP-backed 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.
Supporters 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.
The 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.
“The 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.”
Lined up 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.
The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association opposes this year’s crop of bills as a violation of Georgians’ constitutional right to trial by jury.
The 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.
The study 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.
The Senate Public Safety Committee approved Robertson’s bill on Feb. 26.
Another tort 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.
“The problem 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.”
Two other Senate bills take a more comprehensive approach to tort reform, with multiple provisions.
Senate Bill 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.
Senate Bill 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.
The bill 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.
Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chief sponsor of both bills, said passing meaningful tort reform in Georgia is critical to the state’s business prospects.
“The 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.
“The current system drives up the cost of every item in a typical family budget [because] businesses are burdened by this added cost,” he said,
But the 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.
“[Senate 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.
Senate Bill 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 the week.