OPINION: Perry bid elevates lawsuit reform; Texas' corralling of personal injury claim abuse should go national

The SE Texas Record Sep. 15, 2011, 5:00am

By Linda McKenna

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared his presidential candidacy, some personal injury lawyers reacted with fear and loathing - loathing of Mr. Perry's pro-lawsuit reform stance and fear that those reforms could gain traction nationally.

While their response is no surprise, it should concern anyone who understands the havoc that frivolous lawsuits and outrageous damage awards can wreak. As some of the nation's most powerful personal injury lawyers gear up to tear down Texas, civil justice reform supporters are prepared for the challenge, especially those of us who have been on the front line of this fight for decades.

In the battle against lawsuit abuse, my home - the Rio Grande Valley - is ground zero. For years, we lived with the consequences of a legal system that too often benefited some personal injury lawyers at the expense of others, including local businesses, doctors, taxpayers and often the lawyers' own clients. Some of these lawyers seemed to consider the valley their own litigation playground, boasting about high damage awards they could snag and the little effort it took to win. Employers were afraid to locate in our communities, as were doctors, especially specialists in high-risk practices.

Beyond the valley in the 1980s and 1990s, the situation was little better. Back then, Texas was characterized in news reports as the "courthouse to the world" and the "wild west of lawsuit abuse." Personal injury lawyers needed the thinnest of reasons to file lawsuits in our courts. Junk lawsuits clogged the system; people with legitimate claims had to wait longer for their day in court. Outlandish damage awards made headlines and encouraged the cycle to repeat itself - and our legal system allowed it.

In 1990, with the birth of the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse grass-roots movement in the valley, the climate began to change. People understood that we all pay - and lose - for lawsuit abuse, whether we are a party to a lawsuit or not. Legislative reforms followed, championed first by Gov. George W. Bush and then by Mr. Perry. After nearly two decades of significant legislative enactments that have introduced predictability and common sense to the process, our civil justice system is now considered a model of reform.

These changes have helped create and retain jobs, allowed small employers to flourish and improved access to health care, especially in underserved areas. Reforms have worked in Texas and have become significant pillars in the economic foundation that makes Texas stronger than other states.

Richard Fisher, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, recently noted that since the nation's economic recovery began, 38 percent of all new U.S. jobs have been created in Texas, and that the "most important" contributor to that job growth is civil justice reform. As Mr. Fisher noted, the Texas legal system and its reforms have had a "tremendous impact on capital formation and employment."

Thanks to the reforms enacted since 1995, Texas has added almost a half-million permanent jobs, according to an economic study by the Perryman Group. That same study credited a reformed legal climate with a more than $100 billion increase in annual spending and with the fact that more than 400,000 Texans have been added to the ranks of those with health insurance.

Texas voters get it. According to a survey by Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, 80 percent of voters from across party lines want reforms here to be protected. Texans understand that lawsuit reform works for everyone except for personal injury lawyers who prosper when lawsuit abuse is allowed to fester.

As these issues are elevated to the national stage, the personal injury lawyer attack agenda may quickly unravel and reveal itself as the self-serving sham that it is.

Linda McKenna is president of Rio Grande Valley Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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