Truth is often the first casualty of political warfare. And the truth about lawsuit reform in Texas has taken an awful beating in the press in recent weeks.
Foot soldiers for the trial lawyers have mounted a misinformation campaign. Their goal: to undermine the tremendous turnaround in the Texas civil justice system and to demonize Gov. George W. Bush. Apparently, the trial lawyers fear if Gov. Bush is elected president lawsuit reform will be passed at the federal level.
Personal injury trial lawyers dread a Bush White House and are pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to beat him. One could expect if Bush were elected president the sue you crowd would lose their political sway and the trial lawyers might find their pocketbooks gored.
As a small business operator I know what it is like to have my pocketbook gored by lawsuit-filing opportunists. I know what it is like to be victimized by a fraudulent lawsuit and not being able to tell the jury anything about the fraud. I know what it is like to run a safe shop and yet charged insurance rates so prohibitive we had to go out of state to buy our product liability and workers compensation coverage.
I was pleased when the Texas workers compensation system was overhauled and equally thrilled when a package of lawsuit reforms were enacted a few years later.
Thanks to these reforms and changes in public attitudes, the Texas legal system has been made fairer. Insurance rates are falling for both business and consumers and respect for the legal system is being restored. Many businesses have seen their liability rates slashed 30 percent and more.
Everyone has gotten a piece of the lawsuit reforms savings--except the personal injury trial lawyers. And they are none to pleased about it. So, we are seeing sour-grape comments and smoke-and-mirror arguments telling us that Texas lawsuit reforms have produced little or no benefit.
Former Insurance Commissioner Robert Hunter has apparently been leading the misinformation campaign for the trial bar. According to a recent Hunter study, tort law changes in Texas have had little impact on insurance premiums.
That is just not true.
Apparently, it escaped Mr. Hunters attention that Texas has cut auto liability rates five successive years. Nowhere have these cuts been deeper than in Harris and Fort Bend counties. Today, most Houston drivers are paying 18 to 36 percent less for full coverage auto insurance than they were four years ago. Outside of Texas, there is probably not another county in the nation that could make the same claim.
Hunter argues that lower premiums are not the result of lawsuit reform. Rather, he claims they are the byproduct of such variables as safer cars; the graying of the baby boomers and their safer driving experience; and less drunk driving.
Yet according to Census Bureau figures, Texas has the third youngest median age of any state. Younger drivers, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 24, tend to be among the worst drivers. Cars may be safer but Texas drivers arent. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, traffic fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities have increased since 1995.
Certainly, safer cars and seat belt use have helped hold costs down. Yet in Texas, lawsuit reform is the only factor that has been quantified and it is the only factor that has produced measurable savings, which--by law--have been passed along to every Texas driver. Since the passage of lawsuit reform, most Houston drivers are paying $163 a year less for basic auto insurance. Savings are substantially greater for those buying full coverage. Fact is, more Texans are buying more auto insurance but paying a lesser amount for it.
It is hardly coincidental that with the adoption of more sensible laws Texas led the nation in job growth during the 1990s.
Certain so-called consumer groups consistently downplay the benefits of lawsuit reform to further the interests of the trial lawyers. When you cut through all the rhetoric, it is obvious this criticism is not about consumers or insurance rates or the fairness of our justice system. The distortion campaign is about politics.
Cora Sue Mach is the executive vice president of Mach Industrial Group, a steel fabricating company, and president of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston.