Tort reform push cranking up in General Assembly

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.

Bills pushed to give Georgians with criminal histories a second chance

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 background searches.

“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 conviction.

Sen. Tonya Anderson (D-Lithonia)

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 General.

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 we’ve seen.”

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.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “But I’m not confident.”

Georgia House OKs bill tightening regulation of senior-care homes

Georgia Rep. Sharon Cooper

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.

The bill, 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.

The legislation 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 night.

A licensed 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.

“Elderly 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 live.”

Cooper said 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 retirees.

“People like the atmosphere and weather of Georgia,” she said. “Many are bypassing Florida now to make their homes in Georgia.”

UPDATE: Gov. Kemp appoints Georgia coronavirus task force

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp named an 18-member task force Friday to handle Georgia’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The governor 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.

“The Trump 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.

From the 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.

From 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.

Legislation aims to clean up issues with Georgia film tax credit

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 Super Bowl.

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.

Some local economists have pushed back on the findings of those two audits, noting they ignored the huge impacts the state’s film industry has even if the tax credit’s metrics and rules may be looser than they should be.

Even so, the film-credit audits spurred calls from state lawmaker to keep closer watch over tax breaks and credits in Georgia.