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Voters should learn more about all judges on the ballot

For a state with a long track record of fighting lawsuit abuse and working to ensure our courts do not impose unnecessary delays and costs on litigants, Texas’ return to the Judicial HellholesWatch List is anything but welcome news.

The Watch List, part of the American Tort Reform Foundation’s annual Judicial Hellholes report, highlights courts and jurisdictions where justice is not applied in a fair and just manner, which can undermine the economy, cost us jobs, and cost consumers, taxpayers and employers in numerous ways.

The list calls out the Dallas-based Texas Court of Appeals for the 5th District, or the Fifth Court, as it is commonly called, which is well-known as a plaintiff-friendly venue due to a series of liability-expanding decisions and the court’s failure to adhere to Texas Supreme Court precedent. The frequency of the high court’s reversal of the Fifth Court is troubling, too.

Certainly, the Texas Supreme Court has kept the Fifth Court in check, but the repeated history of mistakes and questionable rulings has the practical effect of burdening litigants with unnecessary delays and costs. Like any form of lawsuit abuse or questionable legal practice, that can also be costly for the rest of us. We all pay more for goods and services because of lawsuits, and businesses may be reluctant to expand or invest in an area when a court doesn’t apply justice fairly.

Texas has long been a leader in lawsuit reform. But there was a time — before legislators, voters and business leaders stepped in to work against frivolous lawsuits and excessive court awards — when Texas was known as the lawsuit capital of the world. So it’s disturbing to see Texas back on the Judicial Hellholes Watch List, and it signals the need for Texans to remain vigilant in the fight against questionable legal practices.

The American Tort Reform Foundation’s Judicial Hellholes report, often an impetus for legislative response or court reform, surveys members of the business and legal communities with firsthand experience in Hellholes jurisdictions as part of their research process in developing the annual report.

In the case of Texas’ inclusion on the Watch List, the Fifth Court’s tendency to expand liability should be concerning to us all. One such example noted in the report is the court’s ruling in Parks vs. Ford Motor Co. According to the report, Ford moved to dismiss a products liability case that was filed outside Texas’ statute of repose. The statute requires actions of this type to be filed within 15 years of the product’s sale, which has been upheld in similar cases. But as the report noted, the Fifth Court disagreed, and its finding undermined the statute’s usefulness.

The Fifth Court’s reputation for violating established precedent is second to none in the state of Texas, the report found. In June, the Texas Supreme Court reversed a Fifth Court decision involving a $15 million award of noneconomic damages in a wrongful death action.

Instances like these are not uncommon for the Fifth Court, with additional examples of cases noted by the report involving Lyft and State Farm, underscoring this court’s decisions are not isolated incidents.

The Fifth Court has 13 justices, elected to six-year terms. With eight of the court’s justices on the ballot this year, Texas’ inclusion on the Judicial Hellholes Watch List makes for a timely reminder that good judges really do matter.

Courts and their justices should not encourage or embolden individuals or organizations to file questionable or frivolous lawsuits.

Roger Borgelt is an attorney in Austin and a supporter of Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse.

(Reposted from The Dallas Morning News)