Abbott defends reforms while critics question his own lawsuit settlement

By Marilyn Tennissen | Aug 13, 2013

On a windy day in July 1984, 26-year-old Greg Abbott was out for a jog when a huge oak tree toppled over and crushed him, leaving the future Texas Attorney General paralyzed from the waist down.

After the accident, Abbott, who was a recent law school graduate with no job and no medical insurance, sued the homeowner and the tree service company that had inspected the live oak.

In addition to medical expenses, the lawsuit said Abbott had “suffered injuries resulting in physical pain, mental anguish and physical impairment, as well as the reduced capacity to work and earn money.”

Under the terms of a 1986 settlement, Abbott receives a monthly income of about $14,400 plus periodic lump sum payments.

According to an interview with Abbott in the Texas Tribune, the amount he receives will increase about $500 per month on Nov. 1 and he will also get a lump sum payment of $400,000 on that date.

Abbott, who recently announced he is running for governor of Texas, told the Tribune the value of the settlement was about $3 million in 1986. The amount was based on a 20-year-life span, but it’s been 27 years so the value has increased.

“All told, by the end of 2013, Abbott will have received $5.8 million in both lump-sum payments and monthly income,” the Tribune wrote.

Over the years, Abbott has become a supporter of reforming the civil litigation system in Texas. Critics say that under the current restrictions, the type of settlement Abbott received would not be possible.

But Abbott said “a person facing the same type of injury he sustained would still have the same remedies available to him at the time,” according to the Tribune.

Abbott said the reforms he had backed and helped cement in court rulings had been necessary to curb a rash of frivolous lawsuits.

“You would think that a young man, at the start of his career, crippled by an injury, would want to make sure that others that may have the misfortune to follow in his footsteps would ensure that those people had the opportunity to be compensated for their injuries in the same way he was,” Tommy Fibich, a Democratic donor and personal injury lawyer, said in the Tribune. “He instead closed the door because that would help him get re-elected.”

But Abbott said the legal system in Texas was being abused.

“There were many invalid claims that were filed in court, that clogged up the courts, that either denied or delayed access for people who had valid claims,” he said.

Supporters say the reforms enacted have been good for Texas.

“Over the years, trial lawyers have suggested he is hypocritical and somehow didn't deserve the damage award because of his strong support for lawsuit reform,” said Richard Weekley, founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform in a recent op-ed.

“Abbott knows these reforms do not deny any Texan the right to access our courts for legal redress of wrongs or injuries like those he suffered.

"The goal of tort reform in Texas has always been to create and maintain a fair, honest and predictable civil justice system that balances the rights of both plaintiffs and defendants. Every lawsuit reform that has been passed in Texas, beginning in 1995, has assured those rights," Weekley wrote.

Weekley said the caps on punitive and non-economic damages enacted in Texas are in medical liability cases only. In those cases, a plaintiff can recover all economic damages and medical expenses without limits and up to $750,000 for non-economic damages.

“The Texas medical liability reforms that were enacted in 2003 stopped the exodus of doctors who were leaving the state or retiring because of high medical liability insurance costs,” Weekley wrote. “The result has been improved access to high-quality health care throughout the state, and similar caps have now been enacted in many other states.”

The lawsuit reforms, he wrote, have changed Texas from being considered the “lawsuit capital of the world” to “the nation’s model for civil justice reform.”

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