The SE Texas Record Jun. 2, 2007, 5:00am

Ports are the lifeblood of Southeast Texas' economy.

And dredging, or regularly excavating sediment to ensure the water stays deep enough for ships to navigate, is the lifeblood of Southeast Texas' ports. Without it, the Sabine-Neches Waterway and Ship Channel would be commercially useless; ours wouldn't be the second-busiest port district in the state and the fourth-largest in the U.S.

We should all stand relieved that dredging and shipping here in Jefferson County will continue unimpeded, thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Rick Perry last week. The measure is intended to prevent a recent rash of frivolous lawsuits filed against dredging companies from making it prohibitively expensive to keep our ports fully-functioning.

The behavior of a small group of plaintiff's lawyers proved the impetus. They've flooded four counties in the Rio Grande Valley -- Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Zapata -- with personal injury lawsuits on behalf of men claiming they were injured on dredging vessels. The suits seize on a loophole in Texas law that allows plaintiffs in maritime-related cases to sue in the county in which they live, as opposed to where the accident happened or where the defendant does business.

Plaintiff's lawyer Anthony Buzbee famously explained the advantages of suing in Starr County, on the Mexico border, in a speech he gave last year.

"That venue probably adds about 75 percent to the value of the case," Buzbee explained. "You've got an injured Hispanic client, you've got a completely Hispanic jury, and you've got an Hispanic judge. All right. That's how it is."

So how it's become is that these four Texas counties have become national magnets, home to 60 percent of all U.S. lawsuits filed against dredgers last year, according to State Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale (R-Houston), who led the effort in Austin to end the loophole.

The rub comes in covering the costs of those million-dollar settlements and verdicts Buzbee and his cronies are finagling against dredging companies. When Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. (sued 33 times since 2002) raises rates to cover its legal bills, which it inevitably has to, the increased burden falls to taxpayers.

We pay for dredging, and thus we pay for dredging-related lawsuits. Or we don't, and our ports don't get dredged.

Call them the real consequences of allowing anyone with a law license to take pot shots with impunity at our largest employers.

Injured workers deserve their day in court. And they should get it -- without shackling our community's most important industry so as to enrich a handful of trial lawyers.

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