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Tort reform fight returning to General Assembly

After years on the back burner in the General Assembly, tort reform promises to be front and center when Georgia lawmakers convene in January for the 2024 legislative session.

Gov. Brian Kemp signaled his intention to push for changes in the state’s civil justice system last month when he addressed the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Congressional Luncheon in Athens.

“The laws on our books make it too easy to bring frivolous lawsuits against Georgia business owners, which drives up the price of insurance and stops new, good-paying jobs from ever coming to communities that need them the most,” Kemp declared.

“Next legislative session, I look forward to working with members of the General Assembly on legislation that provides much needed relief to countless small businesses and job creators, reduces insurance premiums for hardworking Georgians and their families, and treats both plaintiffs and defendants fair!”

Republicans have championed tort reform in the legislature for decades but were thwarted by Democrats back when they held majorities in both the state House and Senate. That changed in 2005 when the GOP captured control of both legislative chambers for the first time in modern history and passed a bill setting a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in lawsuits.

But the state Supreme Court overturned the law in 2010. Since then, efforts to pass significant tort reform have failed to gain traction amid opposition from legislative Democrats and trial lawyers, who have argued changes to the system advocated by Republicans would strip away the rights of victims of car crashes and medical malpractice to their day in court.

That lack of progress continued this year when lawmakers supporting tort reform introduced seven bills. None made it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

But Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, said several recent developments give him reason for optimism that the fortunes of tort reform may be about to change

Clark pointed to the passage of major tort reform legislation in Florida earlier this year introduced by Ron DeSantis, that state’s governor and a Republican candidate for president. The bill expands immunity for property owners against lawsuits from criminals injured on their property and reduces the statute of limitations for general negligence cases from four years to two.

Closer to home, the American Tort Reform Association named Georgia the nation’s No.-1 “judicial hellhole” late last year in its annual report on states with the worst climate for tort claims.

Clark said that dubious distinction hurts Georgia’s claim to be the most business-friendly state in the U.S. a boast the state’s job recruiters trot out repeatedly to corporate prospects.

“We can’t be the best place in the country to do business with an unbalanced judicial system,” Clark said. “It’s time to do something about it.”

Clark also cited soaring auto insurance and medical malpractice insurance premiums in Georgia brought on by huge jury awards. He said a rash of “runaway” jury verdicts in the past year has prompted three auto insurance carriers to pull out of Georgia, while many health-care providers have turned to Europe for malpractice insurance.

But opponents of tort reform say business groups have manufactured a “lawsuit crisis” to convince lawmakers to pass reform legislation, exaggerating the problem by cherry-picking cases.

Madeleine Simmons, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, said civil lawsuit trials in Georgia require 12 jurors to reach a unanimous verdict in order for the trial judge to sign off on a verdict.

“In today’s political climate, if 12 strangers can agree on anything, it is nothing short of a miracle,” Simmons said. “The American jury system has proven to be the bedrock of our democracy, and Georgia’s civil justice system is no exception.”

Clark said the Georgia Chamber’s top priorities during the upcoming General Assembly session will include legislation doing away with “premise liability,” where property owners can be sued for crimes committed on their properties that they had nothing to do with, and prohibiting so-called “direct action” lawsuits in which insurance companies can be sued directly rather than the insured party.

“We’re one of only two states in the nation that allow direct action,” he said. “Let’s be in line with other states. We don’t want people [venue] shopping where Georgia is a target.”

The Georgia Chamber will have a new ally in 2024 in the fight for tort reform. A newly formed nonprofit coalition called Competitive Georgia unveiled late last month is vowing to champion the issue during the upcoming session.