Texas’ legal climate can be a lot like Texas weather. The calendar may say autumn, but summer heat persists. Hot, fall days often give way to bursts of cooler temperatures or afternoon storms within the same week. Just as Texas weather can defy predictions, the legal climate in our state can change course, too. And, it’s not always for the better.
Texas’ significant progress over the past two decades to enact lawsuit reform that protects our civil justice system is often cited as a model nationally. But, as a recent study suggests, we can’t rest on past success.
A national survey released last month shows that even with 20 years of successful legal reforms, the everyday actions of judges and juries continue to impact perceptions of the Texas legal climate with excessive awards in key areas, driving down confidence in the legal system here and dropping Texas four places in the U.S. Chamber Institute of Legal Reform’s 2015 Lawsuit Climate Survey.
It’s a clear reminder that when it comes to a legal reform, our work in Texas is never done and our successes in the Legislature cannot be taken for granted.
We are seeing outsized verdicts in some jurisdictions and we have suffered the effects of aggressive and entrepreneurial personal injury lawyers who turn litigation into a cottage industry that can impact the entire state. The excessive rise in litigation related to hailstorms in Texas is a perfect example of how quickly a new rash of lawsuits from enterprising personal injury lawyers, can take hold of the state.
So why should every day Texans be concerned about this latest Texas ranking? Seventy-five percent – an all-time high in the ILR survey – of attorneys at U.S. companies say a state’s lawsuit environment is likely to impact important business decisions at their company, including where to locate or expand. That means when a state permits lawsuit abuse, businesses will invest – and create jobs – elsewhere.
Lawsuit abuse impacts all of us – from our livelihoods, jobs and small businesses, to our personal access to health care providers, our schools and government. Consider that lawsuits cost small business owners in the United States $105.4 billion in 2008 alone.
As legal consumers, the choices we make determine whether we are part of the solution or contributing to the problem of lawsuit abuse. Our civil justice system should serve us when we truly need it, but we must be good stewards of that system, using it wisely and appropriately.
October 5-9 (was) Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week, part of the year-round effort by Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse (TALA) to educate and raise awareness about the costs of lawsuit abuse, the benefits of legal reform and the importance of basic civic duties like jury service.
Each one of us – as citizen, voter, taxpayer, business owner and consumer – has the power to help curb abusive lawsuits and ensure fair access to our courts.
Start by showing up to serve on a jury when summoned. In some Texas counties 60 percent or more of jurors summoned simply don’t show up for jury duty, according to a recent TALA study.
Be a watchdog and call out abusive lawsuits in your community when they arise.
Consider arbitration over litigation when facing your own lawsuits in civil matters.
If we want to restore fairness and common sense to our court system, we need to be educated and engaged as voters. From the judges in the courthouse to the legislators in the statehouse in Austin, the men and women we elect impact and influence our judicial system. Electing good judges and policymakers is critical.
Even in a state known for embracing legal reform, things can change almost as fast as the Texas weather.
Let’s remain vigilant and help preserve a civil justice system that serves us all.
DeWitt Gayle is the Chairman of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse of Central Texas