W.Va. gubernatorial candidates talk legal reform

Chris Dickerson Jul. 5, 2011, 9:49am


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The Republican candidate for governor says West Virginia's courts and legal system are "in urgent need of repair," but acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says he has worked hard to improve the state's legal climate and attract business to the state.

"Civil justice reform is critical to our state," Republican businessman Bill Maloney said this week. "Job providers are reluctant to invest in West Virginia because of our uncompetitive business climate and unpredictable legal system.

"West Virginians are demanding fairer treatment from their courts and legal system, and I'm hearing them loud and clear. As governor, I'd work to fix our broken courts and legal system and make sure all West Virginians receive fair treatment."

Tomblin, Maloney's Democratic opponent in this fall's special gubernatorial election, counters by saying his top priority has been working to create jobs and bring businesses to West Virginia.

"Over the past eight months, he has helped recruit Macy's to the Eastern Panhandle and participated in expansions at Alcon, Orrick and firms with coal and natural gas operations, among others," said Chris Stadelman, a spokesman for Tomblin's campaign. "Investments such as those are why our state was ranked among the top five nationally in GDP growth last year.

"Earl Ray Tomblin has been a leader in improving the state's legal and business climate, passing workers' compensation and medical malpractice reforms. Tomblin's work in pushing through changes in workers' comp has seen injured workers get the treatment they need and get back to work faster while significantly reducing premiums, and he was the leader of the physicians mutual and medical malpractice reforms that have kept doctors in West Virginia.

"Earl Ray Tomblin will continue to lead the way in improving the business climate and solving our state's problems."

Maloney says the state's legal system is a big hindrance in attracting businesses to locate in West Virginia. He says West Virginia's courts and the state's overall legal system consistently have ranked among the worst in the nation. West Virginia has ranked dead last year after year in the Institute for Legal Reform's ranking of state legal climates, while the American Tort Reform Foundation considers West Virginia one of the worst "judicial hellholes" in America.

Earlier this week, Maloney and concerned West Virginians -- including lawyers, business owners and medical professionals -- discussed the need for a comprehensive civil justice reform package, which would include the creation of an intermediate appellate court, passage of a comparative fault law, reining in "no-proof, no-problem" lawsuits, limiting out-of-control punitive awards and more.

He cited the ongoing debate about West Virginia's right of appeal. Last year, the state Supreme Court updated its rules of appellate procedure. The court no longer issues "no-reason refusal orders" and offers "a full review and decision on the merits in all properly prepared appeals."

However, some critics still say the new rules aren't enough and don't provide a guaranteed right of appeal.

"As an example of one major problem, West Virginia is the only state in America without a meaningful right of appeal," Maloney said. "Businesses and jobs have fled West Virginia because of this injustice, while citizens have been forced to fight to have their voices heard by the courts.

"A bill from the last legislative session would have created an intermediate appellate court, but Earl Ray Tomblin failed to provide leadership on this crucial issue and the bill died in the legislature. He has since failed to commit to addressing any of the state's pressing civil justice reform issues, reinforcing the need for a comprehensive reform package."

Maloney says reforming the state's civil justice system requires leadership that Tomblin "can't or won't provide."

"Civil justice reform is about jobs and fairness for the people of West Virginia," Maloney said. "I'm not afraid to lead on this issue and fix what's broken."

Maloney notes that with International Coal Group's recent sale, there are no Fortune 500 companies based in West Virginia. And he said the court system is the reason for that.

"We have to clean things up," he said. "We need an intermediate appellate court. What we have no ... it's not a real appeal, the way I see it. It is better than it used to be. But businesses still are not not going to have that warm fuzzy feeling about our state with our current system."

Maloney also cited last month's state Supreme Court ruling upholding medical malpractice caps.

"That was huge," he said. "We need to take that model and apply it to other things. None of this is about legitimate lawsuits. Everyone is entitled to their day in court. But we need to fix the court system so everyone is treated fairly.

"And the intermediate appellate court, we can do that fairly easily politically. Some of the other ideas - such as joint and several compensation and medical monitoring - could be trickier. But we could package them together as legal fairness reform. Some lawyers won't like me for saying or doing all of this, but we have to do it.

"I think this is the number one problem holding our state back."

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