Capitol Alert

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One of the California Capitol's longest running conflicts pits personal injury attorneys against business, professional and insurance lobbies over the rules governing lawsuits -- who can sue whom and collect how much.

The conflict has continued in dozens of specific legislative and ballot measure battles over such issues as pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases, third-party liability for injuries, auto insurance underwriting standards and "bad faith" handling of insurance claims.

Just this year, the "tort warriors," as they have been dubbed, clashed over lawyer-backed legislation that, if enacted, would have overturned a state Supreme Court decision limiting recovery of medical costs to those actually paid, rather than what medical care providers billed.

It's also been a media war as the contending factions constantly exchange allegations about the extent of litigation in California.

Earlier this year, the business-backed Civil Justice Association of California trumpeted a survey by the Institute for Legal Reform that ranked California as 46th worst state in "lawsuit climate" and Los Angeles and San Francisco as among the "six least fair jurisdictions in the entire nation."

Another "tort reform" group, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, declares, "The verdict is in, and it's not good. California is one of the most litigious states in the nation. How bad is it? It's bad. Nearly 1.4 million lawsuits are filed in California every year."

But those appraisals are unfair, says the lobbying arm for the plaintiffs' bar, Consumer Attorneys of California. And it cites a new report from the National Center for State Courts as proving that "California is far from the lawsuit-obsessed state that the corporate lobby portrays it to be -- at least as far as civil lawsuits filed by consumers are concerned."

After surveying court filings and case dispositions in 29 states and the District of Columbia, the organization found that California ranked 28th in the number of civil suits filed per capita in 2010. The state's 1.2 million civil cases translated into 3,308 cases per 100,000 residents, which was lower than every other state except Hawaii and New Mexico. New Jersey had the highest rate, 11,625 per 100,000, followed by the District of Columbia. The national median was 5,317 per 100,000.

"This data flies in the face of the story we've been sold for years by the corporate lobby that California is somehow an overly litigious state," said Brian Kabateck, the Consumer Attorneys' incoming president. "That story is part of an ongoing attempt to intimidate Californians and their elected representatives into surrendering legal rights that protect consumers who have been injured or cheated."

The survey, however, also found that California had one of the nation's lowest levels of clearing both civil and criminal cases from court dockets, which may reflect the sharp reductions in court funding during the state's recent budget deficits.


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