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Tort legislation stalls in Georgia Senate

Efforts to enact sweeping tort legislation this session of the Georgia General Assembly are now on life support.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill’s lead sponsor, tabled a vote on Senate Bill 415 after senators engaged in hours of sometimes heated debate Tuesday over the controversial legislation. Gooch said the bill is needed to help curb big jury awards and keep insurance premiums down.

Gooch halted the vote at the last minute for an obvious reason: He didn’t have a majority of his colleagues ready to approve the bill. Afterward, Gooch said he was not giving up.

“There are questions that need to be answered,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern for these topics on both sides. We know we need to make changes, and we’re looking for a commonsense solution to it.”

But time is running out. If the tort legislation is to be enacted this year, it will likely need to clear the Senate this Thursday on Crossover Day.

During debate, SB 415’s problem became clear when a number of Republican lawmakers spoke out in opposition to it.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said the legislation goes too far to the detriment of Georgians who are harmed by someone else’s negligence. She also predicted if it ultimately does clear the Senate, it will be “dead in the water” when it lands in the House.

But Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is badly needed.

There have been “crazy verdicts unrelated to the reality of the cases,” Cowsert said. He focused primarily on premises liability lawsuits — cases filed by crime victims who contend property owners were aware of potential violence on their premises but didn’t do enough to prevent it.

SB 415 would make it extremely difficult for crime victims to prevail in these cases going forward. It would allow plaintiffs to recover damages only when they show the landowner “had actual knowledge of the specific threat of imminent harm.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, scolded his colleagues for allowing the bill to be heard only by the Insurance Committee, which has no lawyers as members.

“This is a flawed bill that has come from a flawed process,” Stone said. “This bill has not been properly vetted. … We know a bad bill when we see it. We can vote it down, start over and do it right.”

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