Tort reform is working in West Virginia, survey shows

West Virginia had never ranked higher than 49th in the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform's lawsuit climate ranking. But in 2017, the state jumped from 50th to 45th in a new national survey.

The Harris Poll questioned more than 1,300 senior attorneys and other executives at large U.S. companies about the fairness of the 50 states' lawsuit environments. Illinois came in at No. 48 for its lawsuit climate. Only Missouri and Louisiana fared worse. And for the third time since 2010, "Chicago or Cook County" ranked as the worst local jurisdiction, with 23 percent of respondents calling it the least fair and reasonable litigation environment in the country.

West Virginia's improvement comes at a critical time, the release said, as an all-time high 85 percent of those surveyed said that a state's lawsuit environment is likely to impact their company's decisions about where to locate or expand.

Recently, West Virginia enacted laws to prevent fraud in asbestos lawsuits, to ensure that parties found at fault in lawsuits pay their fair share, and to put public "sunshine" on how the attorney general hires and pays outside lawyers to represent the state.

The release said West Virginia's Supreme Court also is getting fairer. For example, in April the Court unanimously agreed to preserve contract rights by directing disputes to be handled outside of court through arbitration rather than a lawsuit.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform also released a report on ways to improve state legal systems. – Joana Suleiman


Senate wants more reliable information on cannabis

A group of U.S. senators is attempting to end the prohibition-fueled dearth of federal cannabis research. The Senate Appropriations Committee has made a series of directives to the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Drug Enforcement Agency that could create national standards for cannabis product safety.

It is undetermined exactly how the program would be implemented. The two main possibilities include sending teams of researchers from NIDA to dispensaries to purchase cannabis for research purposes, or using DEA enforcement actions to seize products from recreational dispensaries specifically for testing. In a separate report attached to legislation funding federal health programs, the Appropriations Committee has also shown concern about the "barriers to research" which stand between researchers and any Schedule 1 drug, including cannabis.

"The Committee is concerned that restrictions associated with Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule 1 drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and certain synthetic drugs," the report says.

The committee specifically cites the fact that scientific studies suggest that cannabis use can create a decrease in addictive potential when used alongside opiates. – Joana Suleiman


Organic trade group sues USDA over livestock standards

According to long-standing organic regulations, organic eggs sold in grocery stores are supposed to come from chickens that have access to the outdoors year-round. But in a lawsuit filed last week, the Organic Trade Association accused the USDA of violating the Organic Foods Production Act.

"We are standing up on behalf of the entire organic sector to protect organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and demand the government keep up with the industry and the consumer in setting organic standards," Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the OTA said in a statement.

On one side of this battle, there are a few large-scale organic egg producers, who believe that "access to the outdoors" means that the chickens get to live in houses with screened-in porches. According to some estimates, close to half of all the organic eggs in the country come from farms like this. It's a situation that angers hundreds of other organic egg producers, with smaller operations, who have their hens running around outside.

Under the Obama administration, the USDA gave final approval to a new regulation that — among many other things — requires organic egg producers to provide real outdoor space — roughly 2 square feet — for each egg-laying hen. Porches don't count. When the Trump administration took office, it put the new standard on hold and suggested that it might even be withdrawn. Now the The Organic Trade Organization now is going to court, demanding that the government step aside and let the new rules take effect. – Joana Suleiman


Action on student loan forgiveness delayed as rules revised

The Trump administration is delaying action on requests for student loan forgiveness as it rewrites Obama-era rules that had sought to better protect students.

The for-profit college industry has wanted those rules revised.

The move by the Education Department puts in legal limbo tens of thousands of former students who say they were swindled by for-profit colleges. The department already has more than 65,000 unapproved claims.

The rules written during the Obama administration would have forbidden schools from forcing students to sign agreements that waived their right to sue. Defrauded students would have faced a quicker path to get their loans erased, and schools, not taxpayers, could have been held responsible for the costs.

The Education Department says it needs up to six months to decide the claims. – Joana Suleiman


Ethanol to the rescue

The ethanol industry is claiming a win for the corn-based fuel and the nation in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The Renewable Fuels Association said the 38-state fuel waiver given by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt helped avoid fuel shortages by allowing fuel retailers to sell more 15-percent ethanol fuel blends, which usually are not allowed to be sold until the winter fuel season.

Pruitt didn't give the ethanol industry everything it wanted in the fuel waiver. It wanted him to waive misfueling protocols that E15 sellers must have EPA sign off on, which can take weeks or months. Not all vehicles can use E15 because of the risk of engine damage.

The ethanol group said E15 helped "offset gasoline supply shortfalls, limit fuel price spikes and give consumers a higher-octane choice at the pump."

It cited ethanol commodity prices that averaged 14 percent less than gasoline prices since Harvey made landfall late last month. — John Siciliano