So it turns out that all the rumbling that awakened people in Evans early Tuesday morning was a series of earthquakes so mild that most folks probably thought they just had a bad case of late-night indigestion.
For a real earthquake, listen for the stampede of attorneys. And no, I'm not talking about all the wingtip-wearing vultures waiting to feed on Graniteville's misery.
These attorneys are the ones who'll soon be indignantly thundering toward Atlanta once they figure out real tort reform is coming. And they'll run smack into a Harlem attorney charged with putting that reform in place.
The new Republican majority in Georgia's government caused lots of tongues to wag over rule changes that Democrats portrayed as a power grab (duh, really?). But one rule change slipped past them, and isn't being publicized until now. Are you ready to rumble?
In years past, the House speaker could set up special committees, but those committees always had to take their recommendations to a standing committee if the members wanted legislation.
Thursday, House Speaker Glenn Richardson created the House Special Committee on Civil Justice Reform. Not only will this committee handle all aspects of tort reform in Georgia's House, but it also will have the ability to bring legislation to the floor for a vote.
And the chairman of the new committee? State Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem.
"Our feeling is the tort problem is really a tax on society," Fleming says. Six members of the 15-member committee are attorneys, but the rest aren't. "It's not just lawyers," Fleming says. "This is a bigger issue than that."
State Rep. Sue Burmeister also serves as secretary of the committee.
So, where are the fault lines opening in this political earthquake? Right under the talons of all those trial lawyers, who lost their patron saint when Tom Murphy was ousted a couple of years ago as the longest-serving House speaker in the country.
Murphy's Democrat disciples in the House continued to prevent any legal reform from coming to a vote. It took voters removing those people from power for reforms to have a chance.
And they have a really good chance of passage now. The very narrow Republican majority in the Senate passed a weak tort-reform bill in 2004; this year the majority is stronger, and the bill likely will be, too. And the House, led by Fleming's committee, will bring a tough measure forward.
Its key elements will include a cap on non-economic "pain and suffering" awards in lawsuits. Those are the gigantic "lawsuit lottery" awards that get the big headlines and scare companies into settling frivolous claims.
The committee also will get Georgia out of the business of following the old English legal standard that makes every defendant in a lawsuit equally responsible for damages. They'll tighten the rules on "expert" witnesses, stop venue shopping and provide protection for emergency rooms and physicians in high-risk medical fields.
Naturally, the vultures like those in the Graniteville flocks will claim such changes will hurt the "little people" who depend on big lawsuits to protect them from evil corporations.
They won't get much sympathy in the House, where south Georgians will talk about losing neurosurgeons. Or from Georgia's arm of the National Federation of Independent Business, where director Melody Harrison says "Georgia's economic prosperity remains seriously threatened by too many frivolous lawsuits."
Come to think of it, all that rumbling may really be heartburn. Those vultures may be soon regret all their gluttony.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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