“Our judicial system should not favor one party over the other,” Kemp told a crowd of roughly 1,000 attendees. “Our laws should not put their thumb on the scale for the accused or the accuser. And our business environment should help businesses start, operate and grow — not incentivize higher prices, smaller payrolls and more red tape.”
Kemp didn’t outline specifics beyond saying any overhaul must reduce insurance premiums, “level the playing field in our courtrooms” and help generate new jobs. He’ll direct legislators to hash out details ahead of next year’s legislative session.
He’s picking a tough fight over an issue that pits corporate powers and the insurance industry against the powerful network of trial lawyers that has long opposed efforts to make it harder to bring litigation and curb big jury awards.
The governor is also embracing an initiative that has energized conservatives. After Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2004, they soon passed an extensive rewrite of litigation rules.
The legislation, signed into law by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, capped medical malpractice pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000, added tougher standards for expert witnesses in malpractice trials and offered new incentives for patients to settle out of court.
Doctors and hospitals said the measures would help lure more physicians to Georgia, while business lobbies embraced the prospect of speedier out-of-court settlements.
Chris Clark of the Georgia Chamber said “tort taxes” from waves of questionable litigation wind up raising premiums for doctors and business owners, who are then forced to pass along the costs to customers.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
But trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups said that limiting damage awards puts an arbitrary price on a victim’s life. They often describe the legislation as a giveaway to the insurance industry and powerful corporations.
Democrats, who tend to line up with trial attorneys in the fight over tort legislation, often talk about navigating between competing pressures.
“Parties who have been harmed or injured or exploited or abused deserve an opportunity for our justice system to pursue redress,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a first-term Democrat. “And of course it’s also the case that businesses sometimes bear the cost of responding to abusive litigation. So it’s about striking the right balance.”
Court rulings have chipped away at the elements of the law over the years, including a Georgia Supreme Court decision in 2010 that struck down the $350,000 cap. Legislators have revisited sections of the law since then with mixed results.
The governor’s allies expressed confidence that changes to tort laws could bring down auto insurance rates that have skyrocketed since the General Assembly in 2008 changed state law to let new rates take effect immediately once a company filed them with the insurance commissioner’s office.
“Everybody deserves a fair day in court,” said Insurance Commissioner John King, who specifically criticized a Georgia “direct action” law that allows plaintiffs involved in truck accidents to sue both the defendant and their insurance firm. “We just want to make it a fair playing field.”
Kemp said the issue is also personal. He told the crowd that his frustration with regulations as head of a construction firm in Athens led to his run for the state Senate in 2002, and he assailed “ridiculous” lawsuits that hobble small business owners.
“The truth is, you can’t start a business if insurance is unavailable,” he said. “And you can’t grow or operate a business if you can’t afford the insurance you’re offered.”