Gov. Kemp makes push to limit ‘frivolous’ lawsuits a key 2024 priority

Gov. Brian Kemp’s political allies launched a new media campaign to back his effort to curb “frivolous” lawsuits and limit enormous jury awards, another signal the Republican will make a daunting effort to overhaul Georgia’s tort laws a leading priority in 2024.

A group linked to the second-term governor unveiled Monday an initial six-figure media blitz that includes targeted digital ads warning Georgians of “senseless regulations that drive up insurance prices.”

“We need to reform these laws to reduce prices, to restore fairness in our court system and to bring more jobs to our communities,” said the ad, financed by the Hardworking Georgians PAC established by the governor’s allies in the runup to his 2022 reelection campaign.

The new push follows a Kemp address at the Georgia Chamber’s annual meeting in August where he surprised some corporate executives by vowing to reshape regulations guiding plaintiffs’ litigation. While he hasn’t issued specifics, Kemp advisers say he’ll play a direct role in crafting the legislation.

He’s taking on one of the most perilous legislative battles in Georgia. Ascendant Republicans rewrote the state’s litigation rules nearly two decades ago despite determined opposition from trial lawyers. Since then, the courts have chipped away at the overhaul.

With a solid Republican majority in the Legislature and a second-term win in the books, Kemp and his advisers say they’re ready for a fresh fight. They also have the backing of key business groups and insurance industry leaders.

Georgia's top leaders at the Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp, middle, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and House Speaker Jon Burns are stressing action during this year's legislative session on issues such as economic development. They say they will not be pushing social issues, such as abortion. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“For too long, Georgia tort laws have encouraged frivolous lawsuits that hamstring job creators, drive up insurance costs for families already struggling to make ends meet” and make it harder for businesses to grow, said Kemp adviser Cody Hall.

They will face determined opposition from a statewide network of trial lawyers, judicial advocacy groups and Democrats who have long opposed efforts to make it harder to bring litigation and limit big jury awards.

The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, the powerful lobby group that represents plaintiff’s attorneys, said it hopes to work with Kemp and legislative leaders to “protect the citizens of Georgia” and ensure their constitutional rights are preserved.

The governor is wading into a fierce fight that escalated in 2004 after Republicans won control of the General Assembly and made an extensive rewrite of litigation rules one of their first goals.

He enters in a position of strength, fresh off a re-election victory that helped cement him as a rising national GOP figure and a legislative session earlier this year where he secured most of his priorities — aside from a late push for school voucher measures that was turned back by Republican defections.

John Watson, right, talks with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Jay Walker in 2006. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

The 2005 tort legislation, signed 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.

But trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups said that enacting limits on 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.

Court rulings have eroded 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 the rules since then with mixed results, though Kemp’s unequivocal support for a rewrite gives the initiative added urgency.