Tort Reform Affects More than Civil Justice

Some trial lawyers are creating a cottage industry out of suing the state on behalf of prisoners. This taxes the courts, the criminal justice system and prisons in particular.

We’ve all read the reports that the Texas prison system is understaffed. With an estimated 28,000 guards, Texas prisons are about 1,700 short of what the legislature has approved. This results in understaffed prisons and overworked guards. In most jobs, these understaffing conditions amount merely to high levels of stress. However, when it comes to prisons, the result is dangerous work conditions that can also affect public safety.

In today’s booming economy, the state is having difficulty competing against the private sector for workers at these wages.

Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy just released a list of candidates for state house and senate races who have signed a pledge to support tort reform during the upcoming legislative session. Though when we think of tort reform we tend to think of improving our civil justice, there is also a clear link between tort reform and our criminal justice system.

Inmates are notorious for filing frivolous lawsuits. In 1999, the Office of the Texas Attorney General received 655 lawsuits filed by inmates. The National Association of Attorneys General has created a list of the top ten prisoner frivolous lawsuits. Some of these lawsuits, along with Texas examples, include:

Inmates, with the help of State Representative Zeb Zbranek as co-counsel, blaming the State of Texas for having allegedly breathed toxic fumes when being evacuated from their prison because of a pipeline leak.

Two Texas inmates complaining in six lawsuits each about such issues as the prison mail service, the quality of the meal service, denial of dessert while on administrative segregation, and alleged medical injuries caused by being forced to carry his own property.

An inmate filing a $5 million lawsuit against himself, claiming that he had violated his own civil rights by getting arrested, then asked the state to pay the $5 million since he is a “ward of the state.”

A Mississippi prisoner suing for not receiving his scheduled parole hearing, even though he had escaped and was out when the hearing was held.

A Connecticut prisoner suing the state for $20,000 for pain and suffering because he cut his hand on barbed wire while trying to escape from jail.

A Florida prisoner suing in an effort to force prison officials to outfit him in Addidas, Reeboks, Ponys or Avia high tops rather than the sneakers issued by the prison.

All of these frivolous lawsuits cost time and resources. Instead of hearing cases of those who have real grievances, courts are forced to deal with frivolous lawsuits like the ones above. The Attorney General of New York has said, “Sadly, it’s inmates who get the last laugh [because these lawsuits] are an effective way of harassing prison staff and the legal system that put them behind bars in the first place.”

According to the Office of the Texas Attorney General, the average cost of one lawsuit can be $5,164. That adds up to around $3.4 million it could cost the state, based on only the 655 cases filed in 1999. That could go a long way toward improving the pay for prison guards. Instead, the state is forced to spend money on defending frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners.

Texans need legislators that have pledged to adopt rules that change the legal climate so that frivolous lawsuits and other abuses of the system can be held in check. Prison guards should be held accountable for their actions, yes – but they should not fear frivolous lawsuits. And taxpayers should be assured that their tax dollars are not being spent defending frivolous prison lawsuits. Ask the candidates in your area if they support tort reform. Remember, tort reform isn’t just about civil justice any more.

A list of Texas legislative candidates who have signed the Texas CSE tort reform pledge can be found here.