Montana AG candidate Bruner vows to defend damage-award cap

By Chris Rizo | May 13, 2008

Lee Bruner

HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline)-Republican candidate for Montana attorney general Lee Bruner has vowed to protect the state's cap on non-economic damages from malpractice awards and has called for the state to use coal mining to help public schools.

The state's $250,000 cap on non-economic damages from malpractice awards is under attack, Bruner told Legal Newsline in an interview Tuesday.

"The Legislature put some tort reform in place a few years ago, and I believe that the constitutionality of the statute will be challenged during the next attorney general's tenure," said Bruner, who lives in Butte, Mont.

Bruner, 47, said Montana has struggled to attract healthcare providers to the state, but the cap on damages has helped keep more doctors from leaving Montana.

"We're not a wealthy state and people don't make a lot of money here ... but one of the things that Montana offers is a pretty good tort reform statute protecting (providers) from the upside of some of the really big damage awards like they see in Florida, the Carolinas and Texas," he said.

When it comes to lawsuits, Bruner said Montana has a "pretty level playing field." As a defense attorney, Bruner said he is "never afraid" to take a case to a jury.

Bruner also suggested that state leaders, including the attorney general, allow Montana's rich coal reserves to help cash-strapped schools in the Treasure State.

He says the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeast Montana, where the state holds huge deposits of underground coal, could be a boon for classrooms. Montana holds most of its state-owned lands in trust for public education.

Those lands, estimated to produce 40 million tons of coal annually, are overseen by the five-member State Land Board, comprised of the governor, superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general.

"It's more effective to fight crime with teachers than it is with police," Bruner said. "If you educate people you have a lower rate of criminal activity."

Since there is also no railroad going to the coal tracts, delivering the coal to market is made more difficult.

Bruner said the Land Board could work with companies to get easements over state lands for a railroad. But, ultimately, building a railroad is up to the company, not the state, he has said.

Also vying for the Republican nomination for attorney general is Helena-based attorney Tim Fox. Democrats running for their party's nomination are Steve Bullock, Mike Wheat and John Parker.

Outgoing Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath is running for state Supreme Court chief justice.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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