I drive a Ford Explorer with Firestone tires. So does my wife. Firestone and Ford have serious questions to answer to my wife and me and millions like us. People have been injured and some have died when Firestone tires on Explorers failed. It is not right or just to pre-try the facts, and we should all let our courts and juries do their work and make their decisions after a full presentation of the evidence.
But Texans who have been injured when their tires have failed can rest assured that their day in court against Firestone or any other corporate giant will be fair and just, and that they will be able to receive full compensation for their injuries if the defendant is found negligent.
Recently, certain consumer advocates, who, more factually stated, are spokesmen for personal injury trial lawyers, have made outrageous claims that Texas recent civil justice reforms have stacked the deck against consumers. While their charges are vaguely stated and difficult to comprehend, they allege that that Texas statutes and Texas Supreme Court decisions restrict an injured partys access to our courts and diminish his ability to be fully compensated for the injuries caused by anothers negligence. Not true.
Let us be clear: tort reform measures enacted by the Texas legislature in recent years have not placed any restrictions on compensatory awards. When an injured person proves that the injury has been caused by the negligence of another party, then the plaintiff can recover for:
loss of earning capacity,
mental anguish, and
loss of consortium.
The jury is allowed to make a monetary award for each and every one of these elements of damages. Further, the injured party can recover for both past and future loss, such as mental anguish or medical care that has occurred in the past and may reasonably be expected to occur in the future.
The Texas legislature has enacted a reasonable limitation on punitive damages. If a plaintiff establishes sufficient culpability on the part of the defendant, then the plaintiff can get punitive damages equal to:
two times economic damages, plus
one times, non-economic damages (but not to exceed $750,000).
So, if a Texas jury awards an injured party damages of $500,000 for medical care, $500,000 for loss of earning capacity, $500,000 for physical pain, and $250,000 for mental anguish, then the jury has the ability to also impose punitive damages of $2.275 million over and above the $1.75 million in compensatory damages, for a total award of $4.5 million.
The Texas punitive damages limitation reasonably balances societys interests in having fairness and predictability in the law and in imposing a higher level of damages on the most egregious wrongdoers.
The spokesmen for personal injury trial lawyers also complain that a recent Texas Supreme Court decision may prevent tire owners from joining together in a class-action suit. Our Supreme Court has clarified for Texas district judges the standards they should apply when deciding whether justice is best served by a class action or by individual lawsuits.
The Supreme Court indicated that personal injury claims involving highly individualistic variables should be handled on an individual basis, and are not amenable to class suits. The truth is that in a situation like the Firestone tire failures, many injured parties might recover less in a class-action lawsuit than they would pursuing their own claims, which is part of the basis for the recent Supreme Court decision.
This Supreme Court ruling brings Texas into the mainstream of class-action law, making Texas law consistent with federal law, United States Supreme Court decisions, and the law of most sister states. The decision in no way prevents injured parties from effectively pursuing damage claims in our courts. The proof of that is the large number of lawsuits in Texas courts that are already being vigorously pursued by persons claiming damages for the failure of their Firestone tires.
Tort reform has gone a long way toward reducing the number of non-meritorious lawsuits in Texas courts, meaning that injured parties with legitimate claims can get a speedier and more considered resolution. A person suffering an injury can get a fair hearing in a Texas court. So should the person alleged to have caused the injury. Justice demands no less, and requires no more.
Richard J. Trabulsi, Jr. is the owner of Houston-based Richards Liquors and Fine Wines.