Deal Reached on Limiting Frivolous Lawsuits in Texas

May 24, 2011

The legislative fight over disputed legislation to restrict frivolous lawsuits appears to be resolved in a surprise agreement.

All sides agreed late Saturday to a new version of the measure, which has already passed the House, the Austin American-Statesman reported in its Sunday editions.

The Senate State Affairs Committee approved the revised legislation 9-0 after representatives of trial lawyers, defense attorneys and lawsuit-reform groups agreed at a brief public hearing to support it.

Senate leaders say the revised legislation seeks to hold court costs in check and hasten dismissal of frivolous lawsuits, a top priority for Republican Gov. Rick Perry that he had declared an emergency issue two weeks ago.

The changes will replace the language approved by the House and would allow judges to rule on whether a case is without merit much sooner, limit discovery, hasten hearings and assess court costs more equitably.

“This balances the needs of both the plaintiffs and the defense,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former judge who helped to hash out the agreement.

The deal left several members of the State Affairs Committee pleasantly surprised. “This is perhaps a milestone,” Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, told the newspaper.

The legislation would cover civil cases, not including claims under the state family, property or tax codes, the American-Statesman reported.

Opponents of the original bill feared that the legislation would make it harder for Texans to bring lawsuits and would discourage people from bringing suits because of the fear of paying huge legal costs if they lose.

“You can be assured that you can go to the courthouse and not face the prospect of ruination by pursuing a constitutional right,” trial attorney Mike Gallagher, who helped to negotiate the compromise, told the committee.

Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe and author of the original House bill, told the Senate committee that he agrees with the revisions.

Attorney’s fees could be assessed against the winning parties, Huffman said.

“The (Texas) Supreme Court will write the rules concerning how these cases are handled, and we’ll have to see over time how they are used,” she told the newspaper. “But this will be another tool in the toolbox that judges can use.”

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