February 9, 2019 9:55:49 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi senators are advancing a bill that would limit people's ability to sue property owners for injuries or other problems.
Senate Bill 2901 passed Thursday by a 32-17 vote. It was held for the possibility of more debate.
The bill says a person who owns, leases, operates or manages property could not be held liable for injuries caused by someone else on the property unless there's proof that the person in charge knew about possible harm and let it happen.
Its main sponsor, Republican Sen. Josh Harkins of Brandon, is a real estate broker. Senators debated the bill as real estate agents were at the Capitol for a lobbying day.
"Where do you draw the line in what the land owner can control or is supposed to control?" Harkins asked.
Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, who is an attorney, said he was "bewildered" by the bill and gave a scenario he said could happen: "If I own a nightclub ... I have no civil liability for a crime that occurs in my parking lot unless basically I went out there and said, 'How come you two guys don't start fighting?'"
Republican Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, who is also an attorney, said the changes could hurt crime victims. As an example, he cited the case of a Hattiesburg woman whose husband was shot to death several years ago when they stopped at a Moss Point gas station. Wiggins said if the bill were to become law as it's now written, a person in her situation would be limited in recovering money from owners of the poorly lit gas station.
"The elephant in the room is that this is a shot at the trial lawyers," Wiggins said. "It's affecting everybody."
Supporters say Mississippi's current law is unfair because it prohibits judges or jurors from assigning partial fault for a harmful action to the criminal or other third party who performs the action.
Under the proposed change, judges and juries could say someone suffered $100,000 in damages, but the property owner is only 10 percent liable, meaning the property owner would pay less. In many cases, the third party has no money or insurance, so the person who sues would get nothing from them.
Ron Aldridge, executive director of the Mississippi chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses and a supporter of the bill, said businesses are sued too often and insurance settlements are driving up premiums.
"It's not slip-and-fall cases," Aldridge said Wednesday. He said property owners would still have a duty to warn visitors of known hazards. He also said business owners will still want to provide maintenance and security so their property will attract customers.
Others question that assertion. Jordan Hughes, a University of Mississippi law professor, said in an interview Thursday that under her reading of the bill, an apartment complex might not be liable if a tenant spilled oil in the parking lot and someone tripped a month later. She said she teaches a case in which an apartment owner didn't repair a sliding glass door and a tenant was later raped by an intruder who entered through the door. Hughes said she's not sure if the tenant could recover damages under the proposal. During the Senate debate, Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, who is an attorney, said he thinks the bill could allow owners of unsafe apartment complexes to avoid liability if a woman were raped or a child were abducted. Simmons asked: "Do we want our women and children to be unsafe?"
A similar proposal, House Bill 337, awaits House debate.