CIVIL JUSTICE AND CONSUMER RIGHTS

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1 CIVIL JUSTICE AND CONSUMER RIGHTS Consumer safeguards that protect the public have come under attack in recent years, and Texans access to the civil justice system has been compromised by special interests and industry protections that limit corporate liability. Alex Winslow, Executive Director of the citizen watchdog group Texas Watch, gives an overview of some of the blows to civil justice that have been dealt over the last decade. Putting Texas First 55

2 56 Putting Texas First

3 CORPORATE IMMUNITY HURTS TEXAS FAMILIES Alex Winslow, Executive Director, Texas Watch The civil justice system was designed by our Founders to ensure public accountability for civil harms. The constitutions of both the United States and Texas guarantee access to the courts, as well as a trial by jury, in civil disputes. Without access to the civil justice system, individuals lose the ability to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable for needless death, injury, or financial devastation. Without access to the civil justice system, individuals lose the ability to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable for needless death, injury, or financial devastation. Over the last decade, however, Texas politicians and lobbyists have enacted a series of devastating legal changes that severely restrict the rights of individuals, families, and small business owners. These changes have made Texas a more dangerous place in which the value of accountability has been discarded. Below are some of the most dangerous and far-reaching changes enacted over the last decade: Arbitrary Damage Limits: Texas has imposed an arbitrary, one-size-fitsall restriction on what a patient can recover from a negligent physician s liability insurance company. This effectively deprives many patients and their families of due process without fulfilling the promise to improve access to care for rural and under-served communities or to reduce the cost of care for families and taxpayers. Nursing Homes: Texas allows nursing homes to go bare and forgo liability insurance coverage altogether. Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court determined that virtually any claim against a nursing home even spider bites and sexual assault is considered medical negligence, giving Putting Texas First 57

4 nursing home operators even greater protections against accountability. Texas ranks second-to-last in nursing home staffing ratios and a quarter of all nursing home facilities in Texas have the nation s worst quality rating. Texas ranks second-to-last in nursing home staffing ratios and a quarter of all nursing home facilities in Texas have the nation s worst quality rating. Dangerous Products: Despite their claims to support local control, Texas politicians force state courts to defer to unelected, unaccountable federal bureaucrats to determine the safety of a product. If a product meets federal guidelines it is assumed to be safe. This deprives state judges and juries of their ability to independently determine the safety of a particular product. Asbestos Poisoning: Texas has placed severe restrictions on workers who have been poisoned by exposure to asbestos by imposing impairment criteria that exceed those established by medical authorities and placing stringent filing requirements on sickened workers. Winners Pay: In Texas, if plaintiffs reject a defendant s settlement offer so that they can make their case before a jury of their peers, the plaintiff could be forced to pay a defendant s legal costs even if he or she wins in court. In other words, a plaintiff could bring a valid claim that is approved by a judge, have a jury rule in his or her favor and award damages only to be forced to pay the wrongdoer s legal costs, erasing the entire judgment in the process. Windstorm Insurance: After Hurricane Ike, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), the state s windstorm insurer of last resort, was caught allegedly engaging in unfair claims handling practices. Rather than crack down on the insurance provider, lawmakers restricted the legal rights of policyholders by removing key penalties for wrongdoing by TWIA. Additionally, the legislature stripped judges and juries of their power, giving it to an unelected expert panel, required policyholders 58 Putting Texas First

5 to pay extra to retain their full constitutional rights, and forced claimants into a Byzantine claims process. THE WAY FORWARD Texas lawmakers must begin the process of making the constitutional promise of open access to our courts a reality by enacting real legal reforms that protect families and small business owners. This would give Texans the opportunity to have their disputes resolved by an impartial jury of their peers. This would restore meaningful public accountability for wrongdoers who cause needless harm to individuals, which will deter corporate misconduct and make our state safer. Putting Texas First 59

6 CIVIL JUSTICE FACTS AND FIGURES HOW TEXAS RANKS Average premium for homeowners insurance in 2009: 1st at $1, Average premium for auto insurance in 2009: 11th at $1, Homeownership rate in 2008: 45th at 65.5% 80 Income inequality between the rich and the poor: 9th 81 Income inequality between the rich and the middle class: 5th 82 DETAILS The average annual cost of Texans homeowner insurance policies, $1,511, is almost double the national average of $ Low- and moderate-income Texas families bear a disproportionate share of state and local taxes. Texas has the fifth most regressive state and local tax system of the 50 states. 84 Since Texas instituted its medical liability limits in 2003, the number of payments made on behalf of Texas doctors to compensate patients for medical errors fell more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2010, and the value of those payments fell by nearly 65 percent Putting Texas First

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