Legislators Consider Changes in Civil Justice System

Yvonne Moran and her 6-year-old daughter spend many a night crying over the loss of Moran’s husband a few days before Christmas in 1996.

Bart Moran’s minivan was broadsided and his seat belt failed, throwing him to his death, said Yvonne Moran of Sinton. She later won a $6.7 million civil court judgment. The defendants are appealing.

On Wednesday, Moran traveled to the Capitol to speak out against a bill she contends would make lawsuits like hers against the car maker and seat belt manufacturer more difficult, if not impossible.

“My message would be: Please don’t quiet our voices. The law is all we have,” Moran said.

Plenty of others appearing before the House Civil Practices Committee took a different view. They said the bill by Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, would crack down on frivolous lawsuits and restore balance in the Texas civil justice system.

“Among the fuels that feed the fires of litigiousness are the many hit-the-jackpot jury verdicts that occur with increasing frequency,” said Richard J. Trabulsi Jr., president of Texans For Lawsuit Reform, who spoke in favor of the bill in a jam-packed hearing room.

Trabulsi said his group isn’t “anti-lawsuit” or “anti-lawyer.” But he said an unfair legal system costs jobs and passes businesses’ legal costs on to consumers.

Among the proposals in Nixon’s bill are:

-Delaying class-action lawsuits until plaintiffs exhaust administrative remedies through any applicable state agency.

-Requiring the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s legal fees if the plaintiff rejects a settlement offer and later wins a lower monetary verdict in court.

-Allowing an immediate pre-trial appeal of a venue ruling when there are several plaintiffs. Nixon says this would prevent “courthouse forum shopping.”

Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, a member of the committee, asked Nixon what sort of financial impact his bill would have on state agencies if they must handle more administrative cases.

Nixon said he didn’t think there would be any extra fiscal impact because those avenues are already available.

Major changes to the state’s civil justice laws were last made in 1995, when George W. Bush was governor. Among other things, the Legislature limited punitive damages, limited where civil lawsuits can be filed and limited the percentage of fault in a claim involving multiple defendants.

Nixon said the system still needs changing because of high jury verdicts. Since then there have been $10.5 billion in jury verdicts in Texas cases with awards of $10 million or higher, he said.

Nixon has filed a separate bill dealing specifically with limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.

Other groups showing up in favor of Nixon’s omnibus civil justice bill Wednesday were Citizens for a Sound Economy, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and economist Ray Perryman.

“Judicial reform is one of those rare issues where the economic evidence is straightforward, concrete and incontrovertible,” Perryman said in his prepared remarks.

Changes that would be brought about by Nixon’s bill would result in lower insurance rates and create a stronger climate for investment and business expansion, Perryman said.

But for plaintiffs like Yvonne Moran, 38, a driving examiner for the Texas Department of Public Safety and now a widow and single mother, the proposed law is seen as a barrier – one that would make it difficult to shed light on a product’s malfunction and one that could prevent some monetary recovery for the loss of a loved one.

Her daughter, Autumn, now in first grade, was only an infant when her father died. She’s getting to know him through homemade videotapes that Yvonne is so glad they made.

“She never knew him,” her mother said, “but she certainly misses him.”