Bill to make it harder to sue property owners nearly stalled over fears of unintended consequences

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Legislation to provide landowners and business owners protection from lawsuits when someone is injured by a third person on their premises was approved 31-20 last week in the Senate and was sent to Gov. Phil Bryant who is expected to sign the bill into law.

The passage of the Landowner Protection Act is no surprise. On the other hand, the lateness in the process of the bill making it through the legislative maze and reaching the governor’s desk is a bit surprising to legislative observers.

Earlier in the session, the bill appeared to be on the fast track. Proponents of the legislation were adamant in fending off efforts to slow the progress of the bill, which opponents said might have unintended consequences.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg

At first those concerns were ignored by the leadership of both the House and Senate. But the progress of the bill slowed considerably when charges surfaced that an unintended consequence might be to protect Butler Snow, one of the state’s largest law firms, from liability in the case of Lamar Adams of Madison, who is accused of orchestrating a timber scheme costing investors as much as $100 million. Butler Snow and another law firm with offices in Jackson, Baker Donelson, had connections with Adams and his timber company and are currently being sued related to the Adams case.

Adams pleaded guilty last year to fraud in federal court and was sentenced to 19 years. He was accused of setting up a company to recruit people to invest in the purchase of timber that would be resold at a 13 percent profit. Adams was accused of not buying any timber but instead using funds from new investors to pay off older investors.

When the bill was debated in the House Judiciary A Committee, Reps. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, and Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, argued that the bill did much more than provide businesses protection from lawsuits related to when third parties undertook actions that harmed their customers. For example, the bill, supporters said, gave a business certain protections from lawsuits filed by people who suffered from a criminal act on the property.

But both Watson and Blackmon, among others, said the bill did much more, providing protection from lawsuits in other instances, such as providing protection for a law firm that might should have known someone affiliated with it was taking actions that could hurt others, such as hurting investors.

House Judiciary A Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who is running for attorney general, discounted the concerns expressed by Blackmon and Watson and even shut down debate in committee on the legislation.

But that changed when Alysson Mills, the court-appointed receiver in the timber case, who has alleged others should bear responsibility along with Adams, posted on a website that she too feared the bill designed to protect property owners from the actions of third parties could protect Butler Snow and Baker Donelson from liability in the Ponzi scheme.

“The bill does not, however, address landowners’ liability only,” she wrote.

Mills’ comments caught the attention of many since it was known that Butler Snow had worked on premise liability legislation.

After Mills’ comments, Baker offered an amendment that passed to ensure the bill did not deal with the Adams’ case. He maintained at the time it did not, but said he was offering the amendment just to remove any lingering doubts.

In a statement to Mississippi Today, the law firm said, “The allegation that Butler Snow attempted to influence this legislation to enhance its legal position in the receiver’s lawsuit is false. On behalf of clients of our law firm, Butler Snow has contributed to drafting and supported legislation affecting landowners’ legal rights in premises liability tort suits, both in this session and in earlier years. As to the current bill, Butler Snow did not draft the provision called into question by the receiver.”

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood  

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, the primary author of the legislation, said he had filed similar legislation several years and it was never the intent to do anything but to provide protection for landowners from actions of third parties.

“To say this bill foreshadowed Butler Snow’s involvement or non-involvement in a Ponzi scheme is preposterous,” he said.

Opponents of the bill argued there could be other unintended consequences. Proponents of the legislation say the intent was to put into law the precedents the courts have established in dealing with premise liability cases and to ensure that juries could consider apportioning responsibility between the person committing the action and the landowner.

Opponents say the bill goes much further – making it nearly impossible to file and win a case even if the business was taking no steps to ensure adequate security. That security could be installing adequate lighting and hiring security officers.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said he successfully sued a Jackson motel where a professional fisherman was murdered. Baria said he proved that the motel had neglected warnings that it had inadequate security. If the Landowners Protection Act becomes law, Baria said he could not win that lawsuit.

Proponents of the bill say that businesses still will have a financial incentive to provide a safe environment, but that the bill is needed to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and to help hold down their insurance costs.