Guns, computer glitches and gargantuan lawyers’ fees dominated legal reforms passed during the just-completed legislative session.
However, what was most unique was that lawmakers corrected several simmering problems before the problems boiled over. Traditionally public policy is created in the face of a crisis. However, this session lawmakers identified and closed several lawsuit loopholes before they became runaway problems.
Gun makers were shielded from mistargeted blame. Cities, counties and hospital districts were blocked from suing gun makers for the misuse of guns by reckless, desperate and dangerous people. More should be done to improve safety and restrict access to guns by minors, criminals and the mentally unstable. However, Texas lawmakers recognize that holding gun makers responsible for the action of outlaws is not the answer.
Sweeping legislation was passed to prevent and address disruptions that may be caused by the so-called Y2K bug. Anticipating a rush to the courthouse over year 2000 computer glitches, lawmakers approved a bill that encourages sellers of computer products and services to identify problems and offer free or low cost solutions before harm occurs. Lawmakers said fix the problem, work out your differences informally, and if at all possible, don’t tie up the courts by fixing blame on one another.
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 these lawyers stand to collect. 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.
For the past three and a half years, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has collected thousands of petitions from Houstonians calling for full disclosure in the letting of public contracts. In the future, the public will know the full details of contingency fee contracts before, rather than after, the deal is in place.
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.
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 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.
The new 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.
Our organization has persistently encouraged jury service. This session, lawmakers made it a crime for businesses to fire employees who are summoned to jury duty. The new 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.
By no means was lawsuit abuse eliminated. Efforts to reform class action and third party lawsuits failed, as did a measure that encouraged swift and fair settlements. However, all in all, lawmakers deserve high marks for holding lawsuit abuse to a simmer.
Cora Sue Mach is the executive vice president of Mach Industrial Group, a Houston steel manufacturing and fabricating company and president of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.