David Yates Mar. 25, 2015, 5:06pm


All across the vast state of Texas, civil filings continue to fade a little more each year in smaller counties, even in Jefferson County, a so called “judicial hellhole” in some circles.

Earlier this month, the Office of Court Administration published its Annual Statistical Report for the Texas Judiciary. Data collected by the administration shows a 17 percent drop in civil filings from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2014.

The decrease in filings may have even impacted the Texas Supreme Court, as the high court had the lowest number of causes pending since fiscal year 2005, the report found.

In Jefferson County, 1,457 civil suits were filed in the District Clerk’s Office for 2014, 146 more causes than 2013, but a staggering 732 less lawsuits than 2012’s total of 2,189.

Excluding property tax cases brought by the county, 252 suits have been filed in Jefferson County District Court so far in 2015, putting the Beaumont courthouse on pace to gather little more than 1,000 filings before year’s end.

District Clerk Jamie Smith credits “tort reform” for the downward trend, believing the legislature’s continued effort to push through more and more reforms may have more consequences than ridding courts of frivolous lawsuits.

“When people lose confidence in the courts, we have chaos,” said Smith. “People need to know they can bring a suit to trial and receive justice.”

From imposing a medical malpractice cap in 2003, to more recently passing a “Loser Pays” bill, the Texas legislature continues to make tort reform a priority.

However, Judge Gary Sanderson, who presides over the 60th District Court in Beaumont, doesn’t necessarily think tort reform is the primary culprit behind the plunge in Jefferson County filings.

“We don’t have the toxic tort cases that we use to,” Sanderson said. “When you take that away, we’re not going to have as many trials.”

Starting in the early 1990s, Jefferson County became home to thousands of asbestos and benzene plaintiffs. So much so, the Beaumont courthouse dedicated a vault to house older, ever-expanding asbestos cases.

The tidal wave of Gulf Coast asbestos plaintiffs eventually led to the creation of a multidistrict litigation court in Harris County, where the few Beaumont asbestos cases that continue to trickle in end up.

Judge Sanderson, who was first elected in 1981, presided over much of the initial asbestos litigation but says his court is no longer getting back a lot of the cases transferred to the MDL.

In fact, where toxic torts use to occupy a lot of the judge’s time, suits filed over automobile collisions now dominate his court, Sanderson says.

The judge speculated around 40 percent of the cases on his hearing dockets are car wreck lawsuits – a supposition supported by the filings.

Collision claimants account for approximately 34 percent of lawsuits filed in Jefferson County so far this year.

Data collected by the OCA shows automobile collision suits have increased by 13 percent over the past 10 years.

The jump in collision suits might be filling the void left by the drastic decline of med-mal filings – the one area where Judge Sanderson says tort reform is definitely having an impact.

“The ($250,000) cap on med-mal lawsuits can make a lot of the cases not worth taking,” Sanderson said. “I’ve had lawyers tell me they won’t touch them.”

Ten years after the $250,000 cap on non-economic damages passed, med-mal filings fell by 64 percent, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

Settlements with physicians have also crashed.

From 1992-2003, some 6,265 cases were settled against Texas physicians for less than $250,000. From 2004-2011, only 3,695 settlements were reached, according to the department.

Before the cap went into effect, Dallas County had more than 1,100 med-mal suits filed in 2003. In 2009, that number fell to 117, according to data from the county’s District Clerk’s Office, which was supplied by Jon Opelt, executive director of Texas Alliance for Patient Access.

Harris County saw more than 1,200 suits breach its courts in 2003. The year after, only 204 med-mal suits were filed.

“Plaintiff lawyers rushed to the courthouse in the summer of 2003 after the passage but before the start date of the new law,” Opelt said. “The equivalent of a year and one-half of medical malpractice filings occurred in many Texas counties in the span of three months.”

Prior to 2003, Dallas County had 536 med mal filings pass through its doors in 2002, and Harris County had 550.

Jefferson County has had around five med-mal filings so far in 2015.

But not all the years since Texas started implementing tort reform measures have been lean in Jefferson County.

In the wakes of Hurricanes Rita and Ike, thousands of Golden Triangle residents filed suits, bolstering totals to:

- 2,598 lawsuits in 2007;

- 1,985 lawsuits in 2008; and

- 2,601 lawsuits in 2009.

Court records show that from 2006 to 2012, more than 2,200 storm-related suits were filed in Jefferson County.

In 2009 alone, 628 Ike suits were filed.

While tort reform may or may not be impacting the number of filings in Texas courthouses, the numbers show, in Beaumont at least, district judges and clerks will keep busy every time a natural disaster strikes.

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