For years, the Texas legal system has been the nation's lawsuit abuse poster child. Our legal process has been abused by special interests at the expense of Texas consumers, taxpayers and small business people.
Thanks to lawsuit reform and, just as importantly, changes in public attitudes, all of that is beginning to improve. Fairness and predictability, long absent from our legal system, are returning to the process. Consumers and small business people are benefiting as a result. Because of lawsuit reform, consumers will have saved about $1.5 billion on liability insurance by the end of 1998. The money saved from fewer lawsuits and more reasonable settlements will benefit Texans.
As taxpayers, Texans will benefit in other ways. Our tax dollars have been paying for a legal system choked by out-of-state lawsuits that had nothing to do with Texas. In many instances, these cases were no longer valid or had run the statute of limitations in their own home state.
But because some lawyers wanted Texas to be the "courthouse to the world," these lawsuits were dumped on Texas courts. And because so many of these non-Texas cases were clogging our legal works, Texans had to wait longer for their day in their own court. In 1997, the Legislature responded to the public's outcry for change. Legislators rewrote the law that had allowed non-Texans to dump tens of thousands of out-of-state cases on our courts.
Clearly, the Texas legal system is beginning to shed its tarnish. Common sense is returning to the process. The public is unwilling to sit quietly by while our system of justice is abused.
Does that mean our work is over? Hardly. A new year offers new challenges. Texans would be well advised to stay informed about the following:
Deciding our differences in a trial court remains an incredibly expensive proposition for both plaintiffs and defendants. This is true, in part, because lawyers from both sides of the bar are permitted to abuse the fact finding or discovery process and use it as an economic wedge to wear down or turn away their opponent. It is time to call a moratorium on discovery abuse. Surely we can find ways to speed the litigation process and substantially reduce litigation costs, without sacrificing the quality of justice.
Are wrongs truly being made right in many class action lawsuits or are certain attorneys simply "cashing in" in the name of consumer rights? All too often, legal consumers get minimal compensation, while their lawyers walk away with hefty legal fees. Consider the recent lawsuit against two Texas insurance companies that netted the personal injury lawyers $8.5 million, after expenses, while the plaintiffs each received... about $5.
The development of life-saving medical devices like brain shunts, pacemakers and other implants is being slowed and in danger of being made publicly unavailable because of U.S product liability laws. Currently anyone associated with any aspect of product development can be sued under U.S. product liability laws. For instance, a company that merely provides the raw materials for a medical device is subject to costly and time-consuming lawsuits based not on the composition of the device, but on how the device operates.
A personal injury lawyer whose firm specializes in asbestosis cases is challenging the legislation that closed the out-of-state lawsuit loophole. Legal challenges to other lawsuit reforms are likely.
Citizen participation remains the lynch pin of our civil justice system. Jurors both enforce the law and reflect community values. Those standards are potentially compromised when fair-minded people are excluded from the process or willingly shirk the right, duty and obligation of jury service.
Clearly, we have come a long way, but lawsuit abuse continues to survive. That means that our job is not over. We must continue to raise tough questions, to be informed legal consumers, and to stay ever vigilant to ensure that current abuses are stopped and new abuses do not occur.
Tina Bruno is executive director of San Antonians Against Lawsuit Abuse (SAALA). Jon Opelt is executive director of Houston Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (HCALA). The Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) movement is supported by more than 21,000 consumers, taxpayers and small business people statewide.