40 legislators given Common Sense award

By Brad Jones
SPECIAL TO THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Tort reform, an issue absent from the center stage of national politics in recent years, has surged back as a key issue in the congressional debate over America’s health care system.

It’s also returning to the spotlight in Colorado, where the Colorado Civil Justice League, established in 2001 as “the only statewide coalition dedicated exclusively to ending abusive lawsuits and creating a fair civil justice system in Colorado” feted state lawmakers at a reception Tuesday, Nov. 17, at Palazzo Verdi in Greenwood Village.

Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, left, and Sen. Mark Scheffel, right, at the CCJL event.
Photo by Brad Jones/Special to The Colorado Statesman

Keynote speaker Hugh Hewitt, a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and a nationally syndicated radio host, told attendees that “litigation bonanzas launched over the last 40 years against anybody who makes anything in the United States,” have driven up the cost of everything from amusement park tickets to automobiles.

Forty state legislators — 34 Republicans and six Democrats — received the CCJL’s “Common Sense in the Courtroom Award” as an acknowledgement that each had “stood up on the issue of tort reform in the previous legislative session.”

CCJL contract lobbyist Jeff Weist told The Colorado Statesman that he believes the Republican domination of the awards is a function of campaign cash.

“The parties to some degree have chosen what side they’re going to take in part because of who their donors are,” Weiss said. “The trial lawyers contribute a heck of a lot of money to (the Democrats), and you see that translate itself into loyalty in the Legislature, I think.”

Weist said his group will focus primarily on defensive efforts in 2010, working to stave off any changes to state liability law. He says the state’s litigation environment is currently conducive to business investment, but that the edge may erode if trial lawyers gain traction in the Legislature.

Jeff Weist, contract lobbyist for the Colorado Civil Justice League.
Photo by Brad Jones
Special to The Colorado Statesman

“When companies decide to create new jobs and new investment, they look at the litigation environment in the 50 different states,” Weist said. “We need to keep that competitive advantage.”

He said CCJL’s primary concern is the potential reintroduction of legislation to increase monetary award caps for non-economic or “pain and suffering” damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. House Bill 1344, a measure backed by the Colorado Trial Lawyer’s Association, was ultimately defeated last session after heavy opposition by doctors insured by Denver-based COPIC Insurance, the state’s largest medical malpractice insurer.

CCJL efforts in the coming session also will be aided by former state treasurer and state Senate Minority Leader Mark Hillman, who was an outspoken advocate for liability reform during his tenure in the General Assembly. The Burlington Republican is now working with the CCJL to increase its membership and influence at the Capitol.

“It seems as though the Trial Lawyers Association has a bee in their bonnet to go after the doctors and their insurance company,” Hillman said.

“Unfortunately, because we have a number of very creative plaintiffs’ attorneys and a supreme court that reads things into the law which are not there in black and white, there’s always opportunity for us to close loopholes that have been invented since last year,” Hillman said.

Nick Jurjovec, communications director for the Colorado Trial Lawyers, said via e-mail that his coalition is “in the process of discussing a variety of bills,” for the upcoming session, including legislation on medical malpractice.