Stop an interstate asbestos scheme

The SE Texas Record May 9, 2009, 12:47am

Lawsuit abuse often goes as far as it does because judges tolerate it.

Not the case with California's Aurelio Munoz. The Los Angeles Superior Court judge stunned the Dallas plaintiff's law firm of Waters, Kraus, & Paul last month, excoriating it for playing "grisly games" in asbestos lawsuits and calling on the appellate court to intervene.

Judge Munoz ripped the lid off an effort by asbestos plaintiff's lawyers who are using state law differences as a means to unfairly pressure defendant companies to settle.

"The main theme seems to be settle or we'll run up the attorneys' fees so high that it is cheaper to settle," Munoz wrote. "(This) seems to be a type of judicially sanctioned extortion."

That's assuming the judges go along with the scheme, which by design begins with filing a lawsuit in Texas, then ends with settling it for big paydays in California.

Thanks to tort reform, Texas now is a bad place to file a frivolous lawsuit if you're an asbestos lawyer. If your plaintiff cannot identify the defendant's product that supposedly caused injury during their deposition, our state law allows the case to be dismissed. That's a fair outcome.

But on another level, Texas remains the ideal place to conduct depositions in these asbestos cases, because of our state's "six-hour" rule. Defense lawyers only have six hours to question accusers--an insufficient time that must be cut up amongst dozens of defendants named in each asbestos case.

The unforeseen result: plaintiff's asbestos lawyers have been filing their lawsuits in Texas, taking the six-hour mandated depositions, then dismissing the cases and refiling in California, where the law is more plaintiff friendly and harder on defendants.

When those defendants ask the court for another deposition under California's non-time limited rules, the plaintiff's attorneys protest that the client is too sick and the court should use the Texas deposition--the one in which many defendants often never got a chance to ask questions of the alleged victim.

Therein lies the "extortion": defendants are deprived of the chance to get the evidence to get frivolous cases quickly dismissed. They're forced to do a cost-benefit analysis--pay the plaintiff's lawyer a nuisance settlement to go away, or pay expensive attorneys' fees to beat the claim at a far more costly full trial.

This doesn't have to be. More judges need to follow the lead of Judge Aurelio Munoz. The public would be the beneficiary and the system of justice would be free of this rule bending "extortion."

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