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Law group considers reforms in how injuries are compensated

Next year this legendary city on the Mississippi will host what could be a historic intraparty political battle when Republican presidential hopefuls vie to inherit the mantle of Ronald Reagan. But another bout is on the horizon here now - the results of which could have lasting effects on how the nation metes out civil justice.

Thousands of lawyers and judges belonging to the American Bar Association have descended on New Orleans to discuss tort reform and perhaps adopt recommendations for changes in the system.

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Proposals to be considered would limit punitive damages in liability claims, give the courts greater leeway in assessing compensation for ``pain and suffering,'' weed out frivolous lawsuits by establishing standards of proof of loss by ``clear and convincing evidence,'' and streamline the litigation process in this area.

The major thrust for reform comes from the American Bar Association's Action Commission to Improve the Tort Liability System, chaired by New York University law professor Robert B. McKay. The panel has hammered out a list of recommendations that, if adopted next week by the ABA delegates here, could strongly influence future state and federal legislation.

Professor McKay points out that escalating concern over the so-called litigation explosion and spiraling liability premiums has already prodded more than 40 states to adopt specific limits on cash awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages, eliminate multiple liability for defendants, and improve tighter controls on insurance practices.

Calls for tort reform come amid continuing accusations from the legal community and the insurance industry that the other is responsible for the crisis.

Lawyers charge insurance companies with price-gouging and hiding from the public relevant data about insurance costs. Insurance officials, on the other hand, say lawyers have encouraged frivolous claims and excessive awards and have deliberately engaged in legal procedures which are costly to the consumer.

Lawyers here generally agree that there is a need for change. But they are far from united over what it should be.

Donald F. Pierce, newly elected president of the Chicago-based Defense Research Institute, a defense research and trial lawyers association, says that ``as a matter of common sense and justice, reform in our system is needed.''

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``Marked aberrations [in the justice system] have contributed to loss of jobs, products, and services within the American economic institution,'' Mr. Pierce explains. ``Further liberalization of causes of action and rights of recovery, which lead to yet bigger verdicts and settlements, should be moderated,'' he adds.

But Robert L. Habush, a Milwaukee lawyer and president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, insists that much proposed tort reform is ``nothing less than jury tampering'' by the insurance industry and its allies.

Mr. Habush says that product liability cases - and resulting awards - have reduced risks in the home and the workplace and forced many corporations to be more safety conscious.

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