By Lisa A. Rickard
President, U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform
Ahead of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s “State of the State” address on Wednesday night, new research from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) provides a snapshot of the state’s past accomplishments and future opportunities on legal reform.
The paper, West Virginia’s Climb: Lawsuit Climate Progress in the Mountain State and the Path Ahead, notes that the state jumped five spots to #45 nationally in 2017 Lawsuit Climate Survey: Ranking the States, released by ILR, after never ranking higher than #49 in 10 previous surveys spanning 15 years. Significantly, an all-time high 85 percent of senior business executives in the survey said that a state’s lawsuit environment is likely to impact their company’s decisions about where to locate or expand.
West Virginia’s Climb highlights that the state’s multi-year commitment to legal reform starting in 2015 brought many of its laws into the mainstream, including:
- Making sure each party pays its fair share when more than one is at fault.
- Making sure doctors are held responsible for telling patients about the benefits and side effects of drugs if the manufacturer has given them the full story about it.
- Ensuring that punitive damages awards are tied to actual harm.
- Making sure judgments in state courts don’t rack up over-the-top interest.
The state also passed laws:
- Combatting “double dip” asbestos lawsuits where lawyers fraudulently file claims against multiple asbestos trusts and in the tort system.
- Putting into law the attorney general’s “sunshine” policy promoting transparency and limiting how much lawyers make when the AG hires outside lawyers to represent West Virginia.
West Virginia’s lawmakers and Gov. Justice have helped a new day dawn on legal reform in their state. Keeping this momentum going in 2018 will only help make West Virginia more attractive to businesses, but past experience shows—especially in states like Texas that have made a long-term effort—that legal reform is not a one-and-done undertaking because plaintiffs’ lawyers continually push new legal theories to file questionable lawsuits under existing laws.
As lawmakers take stock of the “State of the State” this week, West Virginia’s Climb suggests additional legal reforms that they can consider, including:
- Creating an intermediate court of appeals so that court rulings get a second look.
- Abandoning allowing individuals who allege exposure to a toxic substance, but have no actual injury, to recover cash awards.
- Curbing the ability of attorneys to bring lawsuits in West Virginia courts on behalf of people who do not live or work in West Virginia and were injured elsewhere.
- Allowing juries to know whether parties in a car accident lawsuit were wearing seat belts.
- Stemming no-injury class action lawsuits and basing attorneys’ fees on the benefit actually received by class members.
- Preventing predatory lawsuit lenders from charging plaintiffs sky-high interest rates.
- Ending common misleading practices used in lawsuit advertisements that scare people away from seeking treatment or lead them to stop taking their prescribed medication.
Hopefully, West Virginia seizes the opportunity that 2018 provides to “brighten the skies” of its lawsuit climate even more.