Followers of Virginia law collectively hold their breath for the roughly three months that the Virginia General Assembly meets every year. Over the years, a number of sweeping proposals have been made there, which might completely overhaul the area of victims’ rights (generally known as “tort law”). While the so-called “tort reform” legislators are still out there, the election of Democratic representatives across the state practically ensures that Virginia tort law will remain unchanged in most major areas.
Surprisingly, Virginia is considered somewhat of a freewheeling state when it comes to victims’ rights.
Unlike many states, there is a strong preference for injury cases (even weak ones) to go to a jury. The Virginia Supreme Court has frequently reversed trial courts which attempt to remove these cases from the hands of jurors. Also, our legislators frequently rebuff efforts to implement “no-fault” rules. In its pure form, no-fault law removes an injury victim’s right to sue and replaces it with a schedule of quantified benefits. Frequently, the right to obtain compensation for pain and suffering is non-existent.
On the negative side for injury victims, Virginia maintains a hard and fast “contributory negligence” rule, which bars someone from recovering compensation even where he or she is slightly at fault for an accident (other states simply reduce the Plaintiff’s award by his percentage of negligence). Even so, there seems to be a broad consensus amongst attorneys, insurance companies and elected officials that Virginia’s tort system works. To be sure, there are examples of cases which we all might second guess. The media and attorneys frequently underreport cases where injury victims obtain relatively little compensation. Sometimes, jurors misapply the contributory negligence rule and deny payments even in meritorious cases. Overall, however, Virginia’s citizens should feel fortunate. They have access to a seasoned group of talented trial attorneys and our courts are orderly and well-run. Virginia plaintiffs rarely encounter the kinds of unfair delays that can postpone the day of justice for five or more years in places like Pennsylvania.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly will consider modest changes to the underinsured motorist statutes and some relatively small changes to the Virginia Worker’s Compensation Act. Overall, however, the consensuses seems to be “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and in our view, that’s a very good sign for the victims of negligence.