By Mike Hachtman
When our civil justice system works correctly, it’s a fair forum to settle disputes and appropriately compensate those who have been legitimately harmed. At its worst, it can be a system rife for abuse that costs us all.
Texas knows a thing or two about both sides of the civil justice spectrum. While we continue to see evidence of abusive lawsuits and questionable legal practices, over the past three decades Texas has gone from the epicenter of lawsuit abuse to a beacon for smart reforms.
Thirty years ago, Texas was known as the “courthouse to the world” and our civil justice system was called a Wild West embarrassment. We seemed to regularly make the American Tort Reform Foundation’s list for the country’s worst “Judicial Hellholes.” Even when the suits had no connection to Texas, personal injury lawyers were almost guaranteed to win big in our courts.
Small businesses, especially, operated in fear of the one lawsuit that could put them out of business. Doctors were closing their practices or leaving the state because our lawsuit climate had made liability insurance unaffordable.
By the mid-1990s, Texans had had enough. Texans united in demanding reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits and outlandish court awards. Texas leaders took note, and over the years, legislators have enacted important lawsuit reforms to support a system that allows for justice, not greed.
Texas proves that reform works. Recent jobs numbers show Texas’ economy is stronger than ever. More doctors are practicing in Texas, including in underserved areas. And the contribution of lawsuit reform to those successes cannot be minimized.
Yet, lawsuit abuse continues to cost us in many ways. A recent national study found that the “tort tax”—the cost of excessive, abusive lawsuits that each of us pays—is nearly $1,600 on a per capita basis, placing Texas in the top 20 states with high tort or lawsuit taxes.
There’s clearly still work to be done.
That’s why Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse and our allies at Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse are engaging the Legislature this session on a range of lawsuit reform topics.
For instance, we urge legislators to take steps to stop public nuisance lawsuit abuse in Texas. Public nuisance lawsuits were typically filed to address private conduct that interfered with the use of public property, such as lakes, rivers and even roadways. However, some personal injury lawyers have expanded its use to address a range of alleged harms involving varied industries and products, including lead paint, opioids and even climate change-related issues.
In many cases, the Legislature—not the courts—is the best place to address issues raised by public nuisance lawsuits. It’s time to rein in this improper expansion of public nuisance claims, while ensuring other legal avenues remain to address issues that impact the general public. Let’s also ensure the alleged harm is clearly defined, and that these lawsuits truly serve the public interest, not just a payday for the trial bar.
We also urge the Legislature to take action to stop abusive commercial construction-related lawsuits in which sub-contractors are looped into a suit alleging a construction defect—even when the subcontractors had no part in the alleged defect. Defending even a baseless claim can still cost a small business subcontractor dearly.
Another issue on the table is the creation of a specialized Texas court that would only hear business to business lawsuits. Such a court would track with the legal systems in 29 other states, and would provide consistency and efficiency that could help deliver faster resolution to complex business lawsuits, while freeing up other courts to carry out other business.
Texas can point to many success stories in reining in lawsuit abuse over the years. Small business leaders, chambers of commerce and community advocates have played pivotal roles in bringing dreams of common-sense reform to reality.
We know reform works. Now let’s continue to work for reform.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Mike Hachtman, a Houston business person who serves as chair of Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse (www.tala.com). TALA’s mission is to raise awareness of the cost and consequences of lawsuit abuse.