The "judicial hellhole" label tort reform supporters have slapped Jefferson County with may be starting to peel, as a recent upsurge in defense verdicts and decrease in personal injury filings has tipped the scales in Lady Justice's hand.
Over the past year, the Southeast Texas Record has observed a rise in defense-favorable civil verdicts and a sharp decline in personal injury suits filed in Jefferson County District Court – especially in medical-malpractice filings.
Where more than two dozen med-mal suits were filed in Jefferson County in 2008, less than 10 med-mal suits have surfaced in 2009 so far. In fact, more personal injury suits have been filed against local healthcare providers for non-medical care injures than medical related ones, court records show.
The drop in filings comes on top of a surplus of favorable defense verdicts.
Most recently, in the case of Dr. Brent Mainwaring vs. HealthSouth, Jefferson County jurors ruled in the plaintiff's favor and found that HealthSouth purposefully interfered in a contract between the plaintiff and another doctor, but declined to award any monetary damages.
In the months of September and October, several personal injury trials involving an automobile collision ended with favorable defense verdicts, including a "shocking" low award in a wrongful death trial last month.
On Sept. 16, the Record reported that Renee Hollier's wrongful death case against defendants Kevin Lavine and Meagan Osborne ended with an $7,500 award for the death of her son, a modest amount for a wrongful death case and much less than what the plaintiff was seeking.
Lawyers for Hollier called her jury award "shocking" and asked the case's presiding judge for a new trial, despite having won the case.
Also in September, a pair of plaintiffs in a car wreck trial received a humble award of $15,000 limited to past medical expenses, despite their request for monetary damages for mental anguish, physical pain and future medical expenses.
In that case, A.B. Mansfield and Clinton Findley filed suit against Trahan Trucking in February 2007 for an automobile collision allegedly caused by one of the company's truck drivers.
What people are saying
One local civil judge says recent defense verdicts do not necessarily indicate a new trend in Jefferson County.
Throughout the course of his 14-year tenure as a judge for the 136th District Court, Judge Milton Shuffield says he's observed several cycles where the number of suits and favorable defense verdicts increase and decrease.
"To me, it's very insulting when Jefferson County is referred to as a judicial hellhole," Judge Shuffield told the Record in a recent interview, adding that jury verdicts in his court have always been "very even handed."
However, when asked if tort reform could be a factor in the decline of med-mal suits filed in 2009, Judge Shuffield said the new laws passed by the Texas Legislature have indeed had a "chilling effect on filings."
Although the judge could not comment if tort reform was having a positive or negative impact, Jon Opelt, executive director for Texas Alliance for Patient Access, didn't hesitate in saying that the tort reform acts passed in 2003 have greatly improved the quality of healthcare in Texas.
Opelt, an architect behind Texas' 2003 landmark medical liability reforms, said med-mal damage caps have cut the number of med-mal filings in half, making it possible for many rural Texas areas to bring essential medical professionals to their communities.
Texas Alliance for Patient Access is a statewide coalition of doctors, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and physician liability insurers.
"Because of reforms doctors are flocking to Texas in record number, returning to the emergency rooms, taking complex cases and establishing practices in medically underserved areas of the state," Opelt said.
"This has allowed more patients to get the timely and specialized care they need closer to home. Since the passage of reforms, nursing homes have been able to find and afford liability coverage and not a single Texas nursing home has gone bankrupt.
"Hospitals have re-invested their liability savings into new technology, patient care, patient safety and have increased charity care by more than a half billion dollars annually."