Harris poll ranks Texas litigation climate 41 out of 50

Marilyn Tennissen Apr. 23, 2008, 7:55am

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The liability system in Texas ranks among the bottom 10 in the nation, according to a survey of corporate lawyers released Wednesday.

The study, commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shows Texas at No. 41 in its overall legal climate for 2008, a slight improvement from the No. 44 spot in 2007.

Delaware has the nation's best legal climate, while courts in West Virginia ranked at the bottom, according to the survey of 957 corporate lawyers.

The seventh annual study, "Lawsuit Climate 2008: Ranking the States," was conducted by Harris Interactive Inc. and released by the Chamber's Washington-based Institute for Legal Reform. The Southeast Texas Record is owned by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Forty-one percent of the poll's respondents said they had a favorable view of state courts overall, while 55 percent rated their home state's courts as either fair or poor.

The overwhelming majority of respondents, 64 percent, said a state's legal climate is an important consideration in deciding whether to locate, expand or do business there.

"We've been telling state policymakers for seven years now that they need to improve their state's lawsuit system in order to attract new business and grow jobs," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement.

"But some states are learning that changing the law isn't enough -- they also need to make sure their courts correctly apply the law," he added.

Kristen Voinis, a spokesperson for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse of Central Texas, said the report is "good news/bad news" for the state of Texas.

"The good news is that Texas moved up three places," Voinis said via telephone Wednesday. "That shows that tort reforms passed in recent legislative sessions do work."

"However," Voinis added, "some parts of the state still have problems with lawsuit abuse, the Valley and the Gulf Coast regions in particular, which bring the whole state down."

Respondents were asked to give states a grade in areas such as overall treatment of tort and contract litigation, treatment of class action suits, punitive damages, timeliness of summary judgment, non-economic damages, judges' impartiality and competence and juries' predictability and fairness.

California, Illinois and Texas were the states having the least fair city or county courts, with the Texas list including courts in Houston, Beaumont and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Since some previous studies have documented "very high litigation activity in certain county courts such as Madison County, Ill., and Jefferson County, Texas ... that are extremely hospitable to plaintiffs," the negative reputation of one or two counties could result in the entire state receiving a low grade, the study states.

Texas also ranked in the bottom 10 when it came to judges' impartiality (No. 43), juries' fairness (No. 43), and having meaningful venue requirement (No. 43). The state did better on non-economic damages, discovery and punitive damages, but still failed to reach a ranking above No. 29.

The American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers' group, decried the study as corporate propaganda.

"The 'study' is based on a survey of corporate defense lawyers from multi-million dollar corporations who are paid to avoid accountability for their misconduct and negligence," the Washington-based organization said in a statement.

Jon Haber, CEO of the group, said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's goal is to "make sure people can't get justice in the courtroom, especially against the corporations that finance this front group."

A full copy of the report, including grades for each state on each of the key elements, is available at www.InstituteForLegalReform.com.

Chris Rizo, Legal News Line, contributed to this story.

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