Group works to end exorbitant lawsuits

El Paso Times (El Paso, TX)
Laura Smitherman
November 18, 1999 Thursday

For Tony Benitez, the $17.3 billion settlement between the tobacco industry and the state of Texas for health-care costs is absurd. He wonders why companies were blamed for the actions of people who sucked smoke into their lungs - obviously an unhealthful habit.

"I should smoke for that kind of money, but I know it's not good for me," he said, describing the settlements as one example of a judicial system that is off course. "There is way too much money paid out for ridiculous reasons."

He said his consternation led him to his first meeting with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a nonprofit lobbying organization. The group's president, Dick Weekley, spoke Wednesday at the Camino Real Hotel.

"Tort reform has improved our economic climate and restored some confidence in the judiciary," Weekley told dozens of listeners at the seminar, one of three stops he was making in West Texas. "But the reason we're here is we're not finished."

One reform passed this year - and supported by Texans for Lawsuit Reform - was a bill that added checks and balances to approving contingency fees in state contracts.

The legislation was inspired by former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales' approval of multibillion-dollar fees for five lawyers handling the tobacco litigation, which alleged companies committed fraud by concealing tobacco-health dangers.

Future reforms the group plans to advocate include a bill that would allocate punitive damages to the state instead of the plaintiff. The plaintiff would still receive compensatory damages for lost wages, medical bills and emotional distress.

Weekley said settlements and jury verdicts are passed to consumers in the form of a "tort tax" that companies add to their prices to cover legal expenses.

The group was created in 1994 and has more than 5,000 members. Weekley said it does not release its annual budget.

One of the founders, Dick Trabulsi, said the organization's time has come.

"It was really bad in the state of Texas for a long time," Trabulsi said, referring to the civil-justice system in the 1980s and early 1990s that some regarded as "plaintiff lawyers' paradise."

He said plaintiffs' lawyers were given almost free rein to choose a courtroom forum, and punitive damages could be unlimited in most cases.

But after the group's first year of lobbying in 1995, he said, more restrictions were placed on venues and the amount of punitive damages allowed was capped.

© Copyright 1999 El Paso Times (El Paso, TX)