Supreme Court Draws the Line

By Judge David Peeples
William Glaberson’s June 7, 1999 Express-News article, “State Shedding Reputation As Lawsuit Capital,” quotes pro-lawsuit critics of the Texas Supreme Court who complain about a “cutback in legal protections.”

According to local Judge Phil Hardberger, the Supreme Court is trying to “undermine” the jury system and is showing “distrust” of juries. Supreme Court Justices Oscar Mauzy and Lloyd Doggett made the same misleading criticisms a few years ago. The truth is that the court is just setting boundaries around jury trial, as courts have done throughout history.

When lawsuits are filed, no one limits the number of people and businesses who can be sued, or the variety of charges that can be alleged. But no court system in history has allowed litigants to sue for money damages without some screening at some point after cases are filed. Texas courts have reviewed jury decisions since the late 1800s. The pro-lawsuit critics ought to know that today’s Supreme Court is just doing what courts have always done.

Glaberson’s article mentions two examples of tragic crimes: a murder and a rape. The issue in both cases was this: When can crime victims sue private citizens who should have foreseen the crime and prevented it?

Killers and rapists are seldom sued because they usually have no money, so the lawsuit will be against the doctor who did not administer medication to a patient who later goes and kills. Or against the apartment owner who did not provide enough security to prevent a crime.

A few years ago, a crime victim sued the former property manager for not warning anyone that there had been crime in the area. A trial judge threw out the case, and the Supreme Court agreed.

Should the legal system let juries assess, without limit, ordinary and punitive damages against doctors for patients’ crimes, or against landowners for crimes committed on their land? That is where Texas law is headed unless the Supreme Court draw some lines, as it has been doing.

It is ridiculous to say the court is “undermining” jury trial when it simply says the law will go only so far and no further in making someone else pay for what a criminal did. These decisions do not “cut back” on legal protections; they reject efforts to expand litigation into uncharted territory.

Not even the loudest critics say juries should decide everything. When the critics say that defendants are trying to keep certain issues from the juries, they are telling only part of the story. Lawyers for plaintiffs also ask courts and legislatures to prevent juries from hearing certain issues.

Over the years, plaintiffs have obtained court rulings that juries cannot be told that a plaintiff’s medical bills have already been paid by insurance or an employer or Medicare, or that plaintiffs in car wrecks contributed to their own injuries by not wearing seat belts, or that other defendants have already paid them some settlement money. These rulings deprive juries of the right to make decisions based on all the evidence, but the court’s critics aren’t complaining.

Reasonable observers can disagree about where the court drew the line in this case or that. But lines must be drawn, and it is irresponsible for the court’s critics to bash it for doing its difficult job. It is the Supreme Court’s critics who stand outside the mainstream.

David Peeples is judge of San Antonio’s 224th District Court and presiding judge of the 4th Administrative Judicial Region of Texas.

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