In an article on the first page of the “City & State” section of Friday’s (8/10/12) Houston Chronicle, writer Patricia Kilday Hart exposes the loss of rights Texans have undergone due to the Texas Supreme Court’s extremist “tort reform” efforts to protect businesses from bearing responsibility for their misconduct.
Ms. Hart references an academic study of the decisions of the Supreme Court published in 2007. It showed that the Court ruled overwhelmingly for defendants (87%). One particular defendant, Wal-Mart, was a favorite appellant: in other states, it prevailed 56% of the time; but at the Texas Supreme Court, over a seven year period the Court ruled in its favor on all twelve of its cases, producing a 100% success rate.
The trend has certainly continued. In the 2010-2011 term, my own analysis of the Supreme Court’s holdings revealed that, in wrongful death or personal injury cases, the Court ruled for the defense 75% of the time. In the 2011-2012 term, which ended on July 6, 2012, the Court ruled for the defense in 82% of the personal injury or wrongful death cases.
Sometimes, injustice occurs when the Court refuses to exercise its duty to correct a ruling in a lower court. Ms. Hart points to the case of Michelle Gains, a teenager badly injured by an 18-wheeler hauling oilfield equipment. The jury which heard the evidence awarded substantial damages to her family so they could obtain treatment and care for Michelle, who suffered brain damage in the crash. When an appellate court disregarded the jury’s verdict, even though the testimony indicated that evidence had been destroyed and a witness had been bribed, the Supreme Court refused to act.
This radical philosophy evinces a lack of respect for the decisions of juries. The right to a trial by jury is enshrined in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution. Yet, as Ms. Hart reported, “Texas Watch…found the court overturned jury verdicts 74 percent of the time” from 2004 to 2010.
As a result of this, as well as the elimination of rights by the Legislature, injured victims – illustrated by the circumstances faced by the survivors of Charles Caldwell – find the courthouse shut to them because no attorney can accept their cases. In Mr. Caldwell’s instance, no lawyer would pursue the claim resulting from his death even though “the Texas Board of Nursing issued a reprimand against the nurse for committing major medical errors.” In her memorable closing, Ms. Hart wrote: “In a society bereft of legal boundaries, there’s no need for lawyers.”