Calif. officials eschew tort reforms

Chris Rizo Oct. 16, 2009, 3:15pm

Arnold Schwarzenegger (R)

John Sullivan

Tom Scott

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-While California lawmakers are traditionally busy in their home districts during autumn, after the state Legislature recesses, this year they will be called into at least three special sessions to address a bevy of complex issues.

Not among them is legal reform, which proponents say would help kick-start California's lagging economy and draw new industry to the Golden State, where unemployment has topped 12 percent, up from 7.8 percent a year ago. Last month alone, employers cut 39,000 workers from their payrolls, a state report issued Friday said.

The leader of the state's leading tort reform lobby, John Sullivan, executive director of the Civil Justice Association of California,
told Legal Newsline that some political changes need to take place before lawsuit abuse can be addressed in earnest.

"First, we have to get the Legislature to understand the need; and second, we have to get a governor that goes along with it," Sullivan said. "It's going to be tough, let's put it that way. We just have to keep bad things from happening in the mean time."

Democrats have overwhelming majorities in both Assembly and state Senate, and given the state's trial bar doles out a lot of campaign cash to many Democrats, it its unlikely any meaningful reform could emerge from the state Capitol, legal reformers frequently say.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is in his last year in office, recently won praise for vetoing three bills in the final days of the 2009 legislative session that critics, including CJAC, said would have cost jobs and increased litigation in the state.

The bills would have restricted the ability of insurance companies to cancel individual policies of sick patients unless a patient intentionally lied to the insurer about preexisting conditions, would have made it easier for California workers to sue for alleged age discrimination on the job, and would have made a violation of the California Unruh Civil Rights Act -- subject to minimum damages of $4,000 -- if a business prohibits the use of any language in or with its establishment.

The California Chamber of Commerce decried the three Democrat-backed proposals as "job killers."

"One lawsuit can really mean the difference between being in and out of business," said Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a grassroots organization.

In an interview Friday, he said while there are a handful of moderate Democrats in the Legislature who "get it" when it comes to the struggles faced by small businesses, their influence is not strong enough to make the issue part of their caucus's agenda.

"There is no two ways about it: businesses are struggling on every dollar," said Scott, who sits on the board of his local chamber of commerce in Folsom, Calif.

In addition to supporting the legislative work of CJAC, Scott said his group is seeking to educate Californians about the ramifications of lawsuit abuse.

"This state seems to be obsessed with litigation as the answer," he said. "Whether we are driving or shopping there is this side thought, 'Will I get sued?' or will something happen."

So, rather than enact reforms to curb frivolous lawsuits that hobble many small and mid-sized businesses, the Democratic leadership and the Republican governor are turning their attention to other issues they see as more pressing.

Schwarzenegger has called lawmakers back into the 12th, 13th and 14th special session since he's taken office to consider education reforms, a rewrite of the California tax code and an overhaul of the state's water system.

"Tort reform is major issue, but doesn't have quite the same urgency as, say, water," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. "It may come up. Some of the more responsible legislators will talk about it but the political cross-currents remain extremely difficult."

As for pressing for changes to the civil justice system, Scott said he expects that tort reformers will be playing defense at least for the coming years.

He said the state's trial lawyers did not press an "aggressive" agenda during the 2009-2010 legislative session, largely because the trial bar focused its energies at the federal level where they have, among other initiatives, resisted having tort reform as part of the health care overhaul sought by President Barack Obama.

But that will change, he said, in the next session of the California Legislature.

"2011 will be a different story," he said. "The next three to four years in this state are going to be a challenge (for legal reformers in California)."

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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