Jefferson County cases keep Texas on Judicial Hellhole 'Watch List'

Marilyn Tennissen Dec. 15, 2009, 3:39pm

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - When a Jefferson County, Texas, judge granted a losing plaintiff a new trial "do-over" without giving his reason, it was enough to keep the watchful eyes of tort reformers focused on Southeast Texas for another year.

The American Tort Reform Foundation has placed courts from the Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas on its Judicial Hellholes 2009-2010 report as jurisictions to watch.

The annual Judicial Hellholes report, released Tuesday, names what the foundation considers to be some of the country's most unfair civil court jurisdictions.

Several Texas courts put the state near the top of the list for many years, but recent reforms helped drop them from true "hellhole" status to the "Watch List" for the first time last year.

"By and large, Texas as a whole has made a giant leap forward," said Darren McKinney, spokesman for the American Tort Reform Foundation.

"However, there are some counties - including Jefferson, and Brazos, Nueces, Starr, Hidalgo and others in the Rio Grande Valley - where judges still see fit to conduct business their own way."

According to the report, the reputation of Southeast Texas has improved in recent years, but it is still known for being skewed toward plaintiffs.

"In one case this year, a judge took a rare jury verdict for a defendant and simply declared a 'do-over' with no written opinion," the report states, citing a Jefferson County asbestos case against DuPont.

Jurisdictions on the Watch List are those the foundation says may "fall into the Hellholes abyss," or could go the other way and "rise to the promise of Equal Justice Under Law."

In Texas, judges are less likely to permit blatant forum shopping, thanks to legislative reforms and court decisions, the report states.

It mentions that Jefferson County "continues to attract lawsuits from far and wide - though there now must be at least a tenuous local tie."

As an example, the paper refers to a lawsuit covered by the Southeast Texas Record. The case stemmed from a train accident in Louisiana involving a family from Louisiana, but the suit was filed in Jefferson County even though only a railroad claims inspector co-defendant lives in Jefferson County.

An appeals court eventually ordered the case transferred to Harris County.

But it was the asbestos case against DuPont that served as an example of the unfairness of local courts.

"Jefferson County remains a place where a judge will take a rare jury verdict for a corporate defendant in a wrongful death case and, without comment, grant a new trial," the report states. "One such reversal came in an asbestos case against DuPont de Nemours brought by a former employee. No liability? Do over."

In that case the Texas Supreme Court, in a narrow 4-3 decision, took the "miniscule step" of requiring Judge Donald Floyd to give a reason for his ruling, but it ordered no further relief.

"Given this situation, DuPont is now reportedly considering settling the Jefferson County case it already won," the report states.

But it was not all bad news for Texas in the report. The state also scored a spot in the "Points of Light" section for the efforts of the Texas legislature to defeat several bills that would have had a negative impact on the state's litigation climate.

"Trial bar lobbyists spent a king's ransom in Austin during the last legislative session trying to undo tort reforms or otherwise expand liability," McKinney said. "But we tip our hat to the legislators for keeping those laws from passing. Because they held their ground, they kept Texas safe for business."

In 2008, McKinney said, Texas produced more jobs than the other 49 states combined.

But, the trial bar is not going away, McKinney said, and though the legislature had to take defensive action this year, it was still a "solid victory in the ongoing battle."

"Thanks to state reforms and supreme court rulings in recent years, with any luck Texas will soon disappear from the Watch List," he said.

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