Dangerous Times for Georgia Citizens’ Rights at the Georgia Legislature

Today is Day 37 (out of 40) of the Georgia Legislature and it can be a dangerous time for Georgia citizens’ rights during these last four days. A prime example is what occurred last Friday when an amendment was attached to a bill at the last moment that would adversely affect Georgia citizens’ rights who wish to bring a products liability case against certain manufacturers. This products liability amendment was attached to, of all things, a bill that seeks to change the words “seat belt” to “life belt” in the Georgia Code. Fortunately, the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association was ready to defend Georgia citizens’ rights and not let the Civil Justice Dismantlers get away with it. For an inside look at this, below is the “Political Insider’s” take from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution this morning.

Buckle up your life belts. We’re in for a bumpy finish
Sunday, March 30, 2008, 04:00 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
We have entered the dangerous, final days of the Legislature’s winter session — a season of desperation in which innocent bills are forced into sudden, shotgun marriages with amendments they’ve never met.

Legislative dogs are wedded to feline decrees-to-be that streak through the Capitol. Often, the unions are conducted in such secrecy that even professional spectators remain ignorant — until, after several months’ gestation, the unpleasant results begin crawling around.

Lawmakers have until Friday, when the Legislature is to adjourn, for such last-minute mischief. Supervision is lax. Gov. Sonny Perdue is far away on a Chinese trade mission, struggling through the hell of chopsticks and endless toasts with sorghum-based paint-thinner.

But most of the funny stuff happens out of the schoolmaster’s line of vision anyway — unless the schoolmaster decides to join in.

An example of the shenanigans to come snuck up last week. The locale was a meeting of the House Motor Vehicles Committee, a small collection of part-time legislators whose life experiences have included real estate, law enforcement, personnel management, business and the pharmaceutical industry.

The topic at hand was S.B. 412, the epitome of do-good legislation.

Its sponsor, state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) wants every reference to “seat belts” in the Georgia code changed to “life belts.” He wants “air bags” to become “life bags.”
Jones hatched the five-paragraph idea with Adam Goldfein, the fellow at V103 radio who specializes in advice for car buyers. “Parents explaining to their children to buckle up their life belts really has meaning,” Jones, a car dealer, told the committee.

S.B. 412 has already passed the Senate, and now must run the House gauntlet. But several days ago, Jones was informed that his bill had grown a sixth, 113-word paragraph. “House leaders told me it had been added — they don’t ask permission,” the senator said later.

Jones was philosophical. If the addition could speed House passage of his bill, he was for it. If it proved a barnacle that would slow it down, he was against it.

Now, about that sixth paragraph. Printing it would only put you to sleep. But it contained phrases like “the proximate cause” and “industry-wide liability” and “public nuisance.” All terms were covered on that bar exam you took.

But even a layman could see this was another shot fired in one of the state Capitol’s never ending wars, over who should be permitted to sue whom. This one had to do with product liability.

State Rep. Tom Rice of Norcross, the committee chairman, embraced the addition. “I’d favor anything that would reduce the opportunity for what I call nuisance suits,” he said.

But Matt Dollar of Cobb County, the vice chairman, was more suspicious. He didn’t know what had been promised to whom, but nobody had told him. And he wondered why the paragraph had magically appeared in front of a motor vehicles committee, instead of a lawyer-laden House Judiciary Committee.

Who’s your client? Dollar asked the attorneys from Powell Goldstein, the firm that authored the paragraph.

The Public Nuisance Fairness Coalition.

Who’s that?

The attorneys couldn’t say. The members were Fortune 500 firms whose names — because of attorney-client privilege — couldn’t be disclosed right then and there. The lawmakers could be told eventually, but the lawyers would have to get permission first. One attorney let slip that a chemical company was involved.

“We’re not talking just about air bags, are we?” asked state Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell.

The committee summoned Bill Clark, a representative of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, the group that does battle against business in the lawsuit war. He’d only learned of the sixth paragraph a few hours ago. He didn’t know what the language did — or didn’t do.

“I’ll concede it may be little or no change. It may be a very significant change in Georgia law,” he said. Clark advised removing the language first, and investigating the implications over the weekend.

But he was countered by Joel Williams of Powell Goldstein, who assured the part-time lawmakers that they were capable of understanding the implications of those 113 words. “You have the ability, you have the brain power,” Williams assured them.

Flattery didn’t work. On Dollar’s motion, the sixth paragraph was stripped out, and the bill was put on hold.

“There’s a rat in there somewhere,” muttered committee member and pharmacist Bobby Parham of Milledgeville as he exited the hearing. “There’s a rat in that one.”
Welcome to the final hours of the 2008 Georgia General Assembly, a period in which a law degree isn’t nearly as important as a sharp nose for vermin.

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