Justices: Texas law trumps Jones Act in silicosis case

Steve Korris Dec. 11, 2008, 3:15am

Justice Don Willett

AUSTIN – Texas silica law outweighs federal maritime law, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled Dec. 5 in sending a Harris County suit to a multidistrict pretrial court.

Pretrial Judge Tracy Christopher of Houston, who had remanded a suit against Global Santa Fe Corp. to Harris County district court, must take it back, justices decided.

Plaintiff John Lopez wanted the justices to settle jurisdiction according to the federal Jones Act, which governs job injuries of seamen, but all nine justices turned him down.

"Texas courts are not expected to abandon all their regular rules of practice and procedure and to adopt federal rules in a case simply because a Jones Act claim is alleged," Justice Don Willett wrote.

The decision strengthened a 2005 law addressing what Texas legislators called an asbestos litigation crisis.

The law set up a multidistrict litigation panel to consolidate asbestos and silica suits from many courts for assignment to judges for pretrial discovery.

For new cases, the law gave plaintiffs 30 days to file a physician's report of a physical examination with medical and occupational histories.

Plaintiffs with pending cases, like Lopez, could avoid multidistrict jurisdiction by filing a physician's report within 90 days of the law's effective date.

When the deadline passed, Global Santa Fe sent the multidistrict court a notice that it would automatically transfer Lopez's suit.

Lopez asked Christopher to remand the suit to Harris County, arguing that Texas law was inoperative because the Jones Act preempted it.
Christopher remanded the suit.

Global Santa Fe sought mandamus relief at the 14th District appeals court in Houston but did not obtain it.

Then Global Santa Fe sought mandamus relief at the Supreme Court and obtained it.

Justice Willett's opinion quoted findings of the Legislature that asbestos litigation bankrupted many companies, bled assets of others and caused thousands to lose jobs.

He quoted findings that asbestos litigation overcrowded dockets and hampered the ability of seriously ill claimants to seek redress.

Willett wrote that the Legislature warned of a similar crisis in silica litigation.

He quoted from the panel's order for multidistrict silica litigation that, "A consistent and steady judicial hand at the helm should in fact promote agreements because lawyers will know where the court stands on recurring issues."

He wrote, "By remanding the case to the trial court, the MDL pretrial court in effect held that, at least as to Lopez, Chapter 90 in its entirety is preempted by the Jones Act."

The Jones Act does not preempt requirements for reliable expert confirmation of silica diseases, he wrote.

"Nothing in the Jones Act exempts a seaman claiming a silica-related disease from establishing, through reliable medical proof, that he in fact suffers from such a disease," he wrote.

"All of these requirements represent the Legislature's attempt to require a medically valid demonstration of silica related disease as opposed to mere exposure to silica or some other substance or mere concern that a disease may develop in the future," he wrote.

John Hall represented Global Santa Fe. John Milton Black represented

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