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Tough times for trial lawyers

RALEIGH — Trial lawyers have lately taken to saying that they have been “cut out of the process” at the North Carolina General Assembly.

These aren’t good days for the trial lawyers.

The new Republican majorities in the General Assembly are taking whacks at a number of places where their bread is buttered.

GOP lawmakers have taken up legislation designed to curb medical malpractice lawsuits, to set higher standards for suits against emergency room doctors, to keep North Carolinians from joining in on some product liability class-action lawsuits and to place curbs on workers’ compensation payments.

Some of the proposals aren’t new. Republicans made a similar but unsuccessful push about a decade ago to limit noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. Six years ago, Senate Democrats considered limiting workers’ compensation payments to 500 weeks but eventually dropped the effort.

Those earlier results are why claims that the voices of trial lawyers aren’t being heard led to a bit of laughter around the Legislative Building.

“Ha. They used to control the process,” one lawyer/lobbyist (not of the litigator variety) recently told me.

Not that they don’t still enjoy some influence, even among Republicans.

Rep. Grey Mills, an Iredell County Republican, is a trial lawyer. So is Rep. Bill Faison, an Orange County Democrat. Other lawyers in the legislature — Democrats and Republicans — have varied enough practices to appreciate the arguments by trial lawyers about justice and the sanctity of the jury system.

Those arguments essentially run like this: No arbitrary limits will substitute for the wisdom of juries considering the individual circumstances of individual cases; a limit of $250,000 or $500,000 isn’t sufficient to make up for death or a life spent in a wheelchair or with permanent brain damage.

Proponents of the bills counter that needless litigation is driving up costs of health care, business, life. An arbitrary damage cap or arbitrary benefits limit may not be completely fair but are for the greater good.

An argument that the legislative proponents don’t make too often — but one that leads to some support among the larger public — also has to do with justice. Some segment of the public understands that too often these lawsuits target an obstetrician or surgeon who is just doing his or her job, a job where things can easily go wrong despite that person’s best efforts.

Still, it’s a pretty good leap from trying to address those circumstances to throwing blanket protections around hospital emergency rooms and the makers of consumer products. A manufacturing shortcut that causes a child to be injured doesn’t need a legislative shield.

Legislative Republicans might also want to consider that the whipped dogs of today still have their teeth.

Piling on the tort law changes is only galvanizing the trial lawyers.

Sure, they’ve always been in the political corner of the Democrats. Come 2012, their electoral efforts may be less about trying to help Democrats and more about trying to punish Republicans.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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