Smoke leads to $44 million "fire" in lawyer fees

The SE Texas Record Jan. 15, 2011, 2:14pm

We're firm believers in the adage "where there's smoke, there's fire," but even we are sometimes surprised by the size of the hidden conflagration.

Last October, we dubbed Galveston County Judge Susan Criss "Little Miss Sunscreen" following her issuance of a temporary restraining order to conceal from the public the details of a $189 million settlement of Ike-related claims with the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA).

We speculated that her reluctance to "let the sunshine in" related to a windfall of fees for plaintiffs attorneys that was certain to provoke fire from an outraged public. Criss is cozy with the trial bar, whose members donated huge portions of their income to her 2008 failed campaign for the state supreme court.

Unfortunately for Criss and attorneys like Steve Mostyn, who have become shy about the immensity of their judicial jackpots, the Texas attorney general's office affirmed its 2009 determination that TWIA is a governmental body subject to the Public Information Act.

Well, now the cat's out of the bag and all we can say is "Ike, caramba!"

There was immense "fire" behind all that smoke. If Criss and Mostyn were embarrassed by the size of the largesse ladled out, it's no wonder.

According to TWIA documents released at long last, $114,000,000 was distributed among more than 1,300 plaintiffs, for an average payout of roughly $54,000 each. An estimated $44 million went to 64 plaintiffs attorneys, for an average take of nearly $700,000 apiece.

No wonder the legal folks didn't want us to know.

The president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform said the months-long effort of plaintiffs attorneys to block the release of this public information will increase public skepticism of the civil justice system.

We hope so. The justice system in Southeast Texas needs a healthy dose of citizen skepticism. When judges and attorneys try to keep public records secret, you can bet there's no good reason for it.

When trial lawyers walk away with million dollar courthouse jackpots you eventually are left with the bill for higher insurance premiums not long after.

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