The Latest Litigation 'Crisis'

First malpractice, now asbestos – gotta stop those greedy trahl lawyuhs'!

With Gov. Rick Perry's support, tort reformers are confident of chalking up another major victory this session – this time with legislation targeting the so-called "asbestos litigation crisis" in Texas. The high-priority agenda item for the GOP leadership would zap "baseless" claims that clog court dockets and lead companies to bankruptcy, say supporters of recently filed legislation. "Frivolous lawsuits are wreaking havoc on our system and our economy and the quality of life here in Texas," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, before introducing the bill's sponsor, Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, at a press briefing last week. SB 15, said Janek, would "make sure that the people who have been hurt … will have their day in court." Under the bill, only people who are seriously ill from inhaling asbestos or silica fibers would be considered legitimate plaintiffs. However, time limits would be expanded to allow individuals to file claims should they later become ill from prior exposure to asbestos or silica fibers.

From a political perspective, the bill is designed to hit trial lawyers in the pocketbook and thus shrink a valuable campaign funding source for Democratic candidates. At the other end of the spectrum, the efforts of Texans for Lawsuit Reform have been shown to benefit insurance companies and large corporations, thereby guaranteeing a steady flow of dollars to the Republican Party.

The Texas Trial Lawyers Association has two words for the tort reformers: "Asbestos kills." As proof, TTLA points to federal criminal indictments issued last month against W.R. Grace and Co. and seven of its former and current executives. They stand accused of "knowingly and negligently" exposing 200 employees – since deceased – to asbestos-contaminated minerals at the company's mining operations in Libby, Mont. TTLA also challenges the reformers' claims of a litigation crisis in Texas, noting that only 1,338 individual asbestos-related claims have been filed in the state since September 2003, while some 35,000 older cases are moving through the system toward resolution. Just for comparison purposes, the group cites the Texas Office of Court Administration's records on the number of pending divorce and family law cases as of Aug. 31, 2004. At that time, the number stood at 233,658.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Kyle Janek, David Dewhurst, Rick Perry, TTLA, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, W.R. Grace and Co., asbestos, Senate Bill 15, Texas Office of Court Administration

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