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SACRAMENTO — Corporate lawyers rank California’s tort liability system among the worst in the country, according to survey results published this week by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Only six states received lower marks than California for perceived fairness to business interests. And Los Angeles was named most frequently as having the “least fair and reasonable” litigation environment. Chamber officials cited the annual survey’s findings in a call for greater tort reform efforts in California. The Consumer Attorneys of California labeled the report “propaganda” based on a “bogus poll.” Frank Pitre, president of the Consumer Attorneys, called the Chamber’s survey “similar to asking bank robbers how they like the criminal justice system.” The Chamber has used the survey’s rankings to lobby for greater state and federal curbs on punitive damages, class action status and jurisdiction shopping. This year, the survey’s release coincided with a one-day print advertising blitz that featured an unflattering photo of a supposed trial lawyer, mouth stuffed with $20 bills, and a caption that reads “Please Don’t Feed the Trial Lawyers.” Ginny Smith, spokeswoman for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, said the campaign also included radio spots outside California and banner ads on several Internet sites. To compile this year’s rankings, Harris Interactive Inc. interviewed a demographic group traditionally at odds with trial lawyers: 1,456 general counsel and senior litigators working for companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. The corporate attorneys gave California particularly low grades in five categories: tort and contract litigation; class actions and mass-consolidation suits; punitive damages; noneconomic damages; and juries’ predictability. California’s overall ranking of 44th in the nation reflected an improvement of one spot over last year and two spots over 2004. West Virginia ranked last, while respondents said Delaware offered the fairest litigation courtrooms. Harris Interactive said changes in the most recent survey’s questions made year-to-year comparisons unreliable. But John Sullivan, president of the tort-reform group Civil Justice Association of California, said the slight rise in rank reflects recent voter-approved limits on private enforcement of unfair business competition laws. The Chamber has found few allies in the Democrat-controlled California Legislature to push its agenda, which includes capping punitive damages. Such consistent opposition may have shown signs of cracking earlier this year, however. That’s when the state’s construction and restaurant industries withdrew a proposed initiative aimed at curbing disability-access and construction-defect lawsuits after lawmakers agreed to address their concerns through legislation. As part of the deal, the Consumer Attorneys of California dropped their own initiatives to strip the licenses of contractors with repeat code violations. No such deal was offered to Sullivan who, along with other legal-reform advocates, is still pursuing an initiative to shield some manufacturers from punitive damages. Sullivan said initiative-backers are on track to qualify their measure for the November ballot. The Civil Justice Association of California is also sponsoring legislation that essentially mirrors the initiative language. But Sullivan noted that almost identical bills have been introduced — and defeated — in the Legislature as far back as 15 years ago.

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