Dredging up a New Source of Lawsuits

Connie Scott Mar. 29, 2007, 10:05am


Imagine a personal injury lawyer openly bragging about how they can manipulate judges and juries in certain Texas counties for their own financial gain. Imagine those lawyers aggressively looking for ways to sue in these "magic" jurisdictions. And now imagine them finding a loophole in Texas law that has allowed them to file more lawsuits that threaten Texas jobs and the economy.

Unfortunately, this scenario is very real and is happening right now in the Rio Grande Valley and other critical areas of our state where a new abuse of our justice system has raised its ugly head in the form of personal injury lawsuits against companies that dredge our ports and canals. While lawsuits against dredging companies may not sound glamorous, Texans would do well to take notice of the explosion of these abusive suits…because we could all end up paying the price.

Lawsuits generally must be filed where the injury occurred or in the defendant's primary place of business. However, personal injury lawyers are exploiting a loophole in Texas law that allows them to bring worker injury lawsuits in the counties where the sailors/workers live, no matter where the accident took place. These lawsuits are filed under the federal Jones Act. Bragging that they can consistently get more money, more easily from certain courts in Texas, personal injury lawyers are zeroing in on four South Texas Counties: Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Zapata to file the majority of these lawsuits.

Some of the personal injury lawyers who specialize in these cases praise South Texas. One lawyer - speaking to dredging companies in May 2006 at Lake Las Vegas Marine and Energy Seminar -- claimed that a case is worth 60 to 70 percent more if it is filed in this region and said his biggest mistake in the Valley was not asking for enough money from the jury. Clearly, the Texas counties where most of these suits are filed didn't earn their Judicial Hellhole reputations by accident. Nonetheless, the actions and comments of these personal injury lawyers are abusive and arrogant and condescend to our judges and juries. Texas deserves better.

While these lawsuits may be concentrated in South Texas, they have an impact that can be felt across the state. These escalating lawsuits, and the liability costs associated with even the threat of one of these lawsuits, have already shut down or stalled two dredging projects at Texas ports. This is no small matter. Texas depends upon its ports to convey all manner of products and cargo to and from Texas. Our ports generate $178 billion in business sales and directly or indirectly create nearly one million jobs for Texans. Without clean ports and canals, that activity is stymied-- that's bad for consumers, employers and taxpayers.

The spike in Jones Act lawsuits in South Texas indicates that some personal injury lawyers are exploiting Valley courts, and a legal loophole, for all their worth. At BACALA, we call that lawsuit abuse.

And Texans should be offended that anyone would brag about how they can manipulate our justice system, earn more when they file lawsuits in certain jurisdictions, and need fewer facts to win their cases…all while clearly knowing their actions can cost Texans jobs.

No part of Texas should serve as a playground for a handful of personal injury lawyers who manipulate the system and laugh all the way to bank at the expense of Texas jobs and citizens. Our courts should be used for justice, not greed.

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