Michigan a battleground for tort reformers and attorneys

John O'Brien Jun. 18, 2008, 1:40pm

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - Plaintiffs attorneys are attempting to demolish years of legal reform in Michigan for their own sakes, a report released Wednesday by the Manhattan Institute says.

The sixth installment of the Institute's "Trial Lawyers, Inc." series focused on the ups and downs of the state's past, and the need to preserve the tort reform measures that changed the landscape of litigation in a state that still has a troubled economy.

"Far from needing decades of legal progress reversed, Michigan would be wise to go further in the direction of tort reform, if for no other reason than that other states have begun to catch up with it," wrote James Copland, the director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy.

The Manhattan Institute describes itself as "a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility."

Copland wrote that the state Chamber of Commerce wants a "loser pays" law to be enacted, as well as limitations on contingency fees, more sanctions against those who file frivolous lawsuits and stronger incentives to settle cases.

"Each of these ideas is worthy of serious consideration. If instead of taking these positive steps, the Legislature reverses course on tort reform, or the trial lawyers seize control of the state supreme court, the consequences for Michigan's already suffering economy could be severe," Copland wrote.

Three significant rounds of legal reform occurred in the state's Legislature, the report says. The first came in 1986, when laws focusing on venue reform, joint and several liability and medical malpractice were passed.

In 1993, more medical malpractice measures were approved, putting a noneconomic damages cap on all malpractice cases. In 1995, laws protecting companies in products liability cases went into affect.

The result, Copland wrote, was an improvement in the state's economic situation. From 1999-2002, more biotechnology companies started in Michigan than in any other state.

Jury awards dropped, as did the amount of lawsuits. Now, though, the state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, while 72,000 jobs have been dropped in the past year.

The report says the automotive industry is largely responsible for the state's troubles.

"Such economic conditions are precisely why legal reform in Michigan remains so important: the state's legal climate remains a rare domain of competitive advantage, given the state's relatively high tax rates, as well as labor laws that hamper local companies' ability to compete with companies doing business in states with right-to-work laws or in foreign countries," Copland wrote.

The strategy of the state's plaintiffs attorneys begins at the highest court, where Chief Justice Clifford Taylor is their biggest target. Unseating him would result in a 4-3 majority of pro-plaintiff justices, the report says.

"Trial Lawyers, Inc. has been hoping to replace this well-schooled and principled jurist; with liberal activist justices holding three of the seven seats on the court, replacing Justice Taylor with one of their own would facilitate a judicial assault on legislatively enacted tort reforms," the report says.

Also, plaintiffs attorneys are seeking to expand the scope of consumer protection laws so that proof of any injury isn't needed to rule against a defendant, the report says.

Jesse Green, the director of communications for the Michigan Association for Justice (formerly the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association) said his organization will comment after a thorough reading of the report.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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