Legislature Blazes New Trail
with Lawsuit Reforms
Reforms Shield Gun Makers,
Encourage Honest Job References
and Cures for Computer Glitches

Guns, computer glitches and gargantuan attorney fees dominated legal reforms passed during the just-completed legislative session.

Blazing a new trail in legal reform, Texas lawmakers “identified and closed lawsuit loopholes before they became pernicious problems,” according to Jon Opelt, Houston director for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Opelt commended legislators for correcting problems before they rose to crisis proportions.

Cities and counties were blocked from filing tobacco-style lawsuits against gun makers to recoup healthcare costs. Sweeping legislation was passed to prevent and address disruptions that may be caused by the so-called Y2K bug, the inability of computers to correctly read the year 2000. Also, restrictions were placed on the attorney general’s ability to hire outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis. The contingency fee restrictions were approved in response to the ongoing controversy over former Attorney General Dan Morales’ hiring of private lawyers in the Texas tobacco case – and the whopping $3.3 billion in fees lawyers stand to collect.

Opelt crowed about passage of the contingency fee bill. For the past three and a half years the Houston lawsuit abuse group has mounted an ongoing petition drive calling for this type of review process in the letting of public contracts.

Opelt said the new law "assures that taxpayer exposure is limited, a fair fee is paid, and the public's interest is served through a contingency fee arrangement."

Measures were also passed to encourage honest job references, jury service, aid to those in need, and protect the use of legal self-help tools.

Lawsuit reforms enacted this session include the following:

Gun Maker Lawsuits
During the past several months, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami and other U.S. cities, have filed suit against gun companies for costs associated with gun violence. Most of the lawsuits claim the gun industry is negligent for not including more safety features. Other suits charge gun makers have been lax in their distribution policies, making it too easy for minors and criminals to acquire guns.

The gun maker bill shields firearm manufacturers from mistargeted blame. Cities, counties and hospital districts are blocked from suing gun makers for the misuse of guns by reckless, desperate and dangerous people. However, gun makers can still be sued by governmental entities or individuals for product defects.

“More should be done to improve safety and restrict the distribution of guns, but holding gun makers responsible for the actions of outlaws is not the answer,” said Opelt.

Anticipating a rush to the courthouse over year 2000 computer glitches, lawmakers approved a bill, which encourages sellers of computer products and services to identify problems and offer free or low cost solutions before harm occurs. The Y2K law also requires parties to try to resolve their differences informally, without litigation if problems aren’t fixed early.
Contingency Fee Contracts
The hiring of private contingency fee lawyers must be approved by the Legislative Budget Board for any lawsuit in which the state’s potential recovery is more than $100,000. The measure also limits how much outside lawyers may be paid and requires they keep records of time worked and expenses incurred. Effective hourly rates are capped at $1000 per hour. Further, the new law requires that all funds won by the state – including lawyers’ fees – be deposited in the state treasury; the funds then would be appropriated by the Legislature.

This measure, which takes effect September 1, does not change the state’s $17.3 billion tobacco settlement or the massive fees the private lawyers in that case claim they deserve.

“The potential for abuse is not limited to the attorney general’s office,” said Opelt. “We have more than 200 state agencies. Conceivably, any elected official could have hired a contingency fee attorney and bypassed the checks and balances of government to serve their own personal agenda.”

Honest Job References
Hiring the wrong individual can have costly ramifications for a business. Fearful of a lawsuit, most employers provide only basic reference information such as dates of hire and positions held. This restricts the sharing of important documented information. It may mean the business hires an employee who is habitually absent, a thief, or worse. For employers who hire employees to interact with the public, are required to enter customer’s homes, or who are responsible for the safety of others, this can lead to dangerous results.

The Texas job reference bill provides liability protection for employers who share truthful information about a current or former employee’s job performance with a prospective employee.

For businesses that hire employees who are required to enter customer's homes, interact with the public, or who are responsible for the safety of others, this can lead to dangerous results.

Juror Protection
This legislation makes it a crime for businesses to fire employees who are summoned to jury duty. The law allows the fired juror to sue their employer for reinstatement plus up to five years’ back pay. The legislation was sparked after a Dallas woman was fired by her boss in December when she refused to skip jury duty as he requested.
Good Samaritan Laws
Two measures were passed this session offering protection to those who come to the aid of others.

Reportedly, more than 19,000 Texans die each year of heart attacks before arriving at a hospital. Some of those people could have been saved if their heart was restarted within moments of cardiac arrest. State legislators expanded the so-called Good Samaritan law by providing civil immunity for those who use a defibrillator in an emergency, provided they are properly trained.

A companion bill allows medical professionals to volunteer their services free from the fear of a lawsuit. The medical care must be performed on behalf of a charitable organization and within the scope of the doctor's or nurse's expertise.

Legal Self-Help
Many people rely on affordable self-help law products to handle routine legal problems. This bill makes self-help legal aides accessible by exempting, from the “practice of law”, printed materials, internet sites or computer software items that clearly indicate they were not prepared by an individual licensed to practice law in Texas. The legislation was passed in response to legal actions against Nolo Press, publisher of 150 self-help law products.

The Legislature rejected efforts to reform class action and third party lawsuits. Currently, jurors are not allowed to consider the conduct of the employer in a work-related injury or an uncaught criminal in a premises liability case.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: sosueme@ • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267