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"President's Page"

MTLA Magazine
June 2004

Article Author: Peter W. Riley


Since this is my final column as MTLA president, I want to take a moment to reflect back over the last year. When I assumed the presidency at the 2003 convention, I identified three principal goals that I hoped we would accomplish over the next year:

1) Returning the Association to a balanced budget;

2) Promoting the rights of injury victims and employees at the legislature, and avoiding impairment of those rights by special interests; and

3) Outreach to improve communications with members outside of the Twin Cities area.

I am glad to say that we had a very good year in promoting those goals. With respect to the budget issue, the officers and board of governors recognized that ongoing expenses such as a portion of our lobbyists’ costs were being paid out of the Justice Fund when they should be part of the ongoing operating budget. Furthermore, the budget failed to incorporate an allowance for depreciation so that computer, telephone and other systems could be periodically upgraded. Finally, the salaries of the MTLA staff had failed to keep pace with comparable jobs with other associations.

Accordingly, the staff, executive committee and board of governors commenced a six-month review of the funding structure of the organization. Following this, we were able to develop a new budget which is fully balanced and should permit accomplishment of all of the Association’s goals.

On the legislative front, we had important input into the employer reference bill. The bill that was ultimately passed by the legislature was modified to incorporate our concerns and to assure that only written communications were protected, and then only when copies were provided to the employee. In addition, employees were given far better access to their records and the employer’s communications than had existed before.

We also faced and defeated numerous anti-consumer bills. Special interests sought to repeal the rule that renders the wearing of a seatbelt irrelevant in civil litigation. We were successful in pointing out to the legislature that the presence or absence of a seatbelt has nothing to do with the reason a collision occurs, and that allowing such evidence would only lead to greatly increased expense for civil trials as experts presented competing claims on whether the person was wearing a seatbelt and whether or not any alleged failure to buckle up had any impact on the resulting injuries.

Similarly, there was an initiative that would have lowered the duty of care a transit bus driver owes to a passenger including when they are transporting elementary and secondary school students. We also faced other bills including a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, and class action reform that would have made several changes that would have made it very difficult for plaintiffs to pursue a case. Legislation was also introduced that would have eliminated liability when a day care licensing agency had actual knowledge of a dangerous day care operation. None of these bills passed into law.

Finally, we conducted 8 membership outreach meetings in Greater Minnesota, including in Fergus Falls, Duluth, Rochester, Bemidji, Moorhead, Mankato, Willmar and St. Cloud, many of which were well attended. Those who attended were uniformly appreciative, both of the effort and of the additional information they gained at these sessions.
Credit for accomplishing these goals is due to the efforts of a great many people.

The MTLA staff, led by Dick Martin, continues to be the most hard working group that I have ever encountered. Lois Wiggin helped us work through the budgeting and revenue issues, and displayed her usual comprehensive command of the organization’s finances.

Derek Lamparty continued to amaze with his computer savvy as well as his organizational ability in maintaining the education program. Sandy Benson, typically the first voice you hear when you call MTLA, continued to manage case evaluations, mock trials, focus groups and the information bank and helps out wherever needed in the organization.

On the legislative front, Joel Carlson and Tim Adams continued to be well respected and incredibly effective voices for consumers at the legislature. They spent thousands of hours, and many late nights and early mornings monitoring legislation and communicating with legislators so that they fully understood the impact of proposed bills. We are incredibly fortunate to have this legislative team working with us.

Our dedicated leader, Dick Martin, continued his steady hand guiding the organization while dealing with difficult medical problems. When many others might have simply decided that they had to tend to their personal medical issues and taken a leave, Dick steadfastly refused to do so simply because he believes deeply in the mission of this organization. His long dedication and expertise was recognized by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America when Tom Henderson, the Executive Director, and Ed Lazarus, the Director of State
Affairs, took the time to travel to Minnesota for our May board meeting to present Dick with a rare and richly deserved lifetime achievement award from ATLA.

In addition to the hard work of the staff, we are immensely indebted to the hardworking leaders of this organization. My fellow officers, Kate Flom, Wil Fluegel, Chris Messerly, and Joe Crumley all worked incredibly hard to realize the accomplishment of the goals we had set for the year. They would be the first to tell you, however, that the committee leaders were an integral part of any success we enjoyed this year. I particularly want to thank Mike Bryant, who has for the last two years led our legislative committee during times when many other states are seeing the rights of consumers severely limited. We are incredibly fortunate to have had someone as hardworking as Mike take on a position of such importance. Kate Flom and Jim Carey did yeopersons’ work leading our Trial PAC committee. It is never easy to ask for funds for political purposes but Kate and Jim led this important effort to allow us to support those in the legislature who believe in basic citizens’ rights. Sharon Van Dyck, our nominee for treasurer, did a superb job in managing the education committee. The Amicus Committee volunteers worked on several important cases before our Appellate Courts.

I also want to thank all of you, the members of this organization. We often call upon individual members for a particular task, such as communicating with legislators and local media outlets. Many of you in the past year helped out, and it is amazing to me that, without exception, our members will do whatever is asked and whatever it takes to help support the mission of MTLA.

Just two final items to mention. First, after 20 years on the executive committee, Bill Jepsen has completed his service on that committee. Bill has been the MTLA delegate to the MSBA Board of Governors for the last six years and their by-laws limited his term to that amount of time. Bill has been tireless in his dedication to this organization and I want to acknowledge his important contributions to our work.

Finally, I want to thank you for the honor and privilege of serving as your president. It has been both humbling and rewarding to serve you and I look forward to supporting this great organization in the future.