Friday, November 1, 2013

Texas Trial Lawyers Could Split | Casey's Last Word

The Texas Legislature has always been divided – although not necessarily along the lines you might think.

Historically speaking, Democrats and Republicans haven’t comprised the most significant division.

In the bad old days, meaning nearly all of the 20th Century, Democrats overwhelmingly controlled the Legislature.

The greatest division was between conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats.

In the bad new days, meaning the past decade, Republicans have overwhelmingly controlled the Legislature.

Now the major division is between conservative Republicans and Tea Party Republicans.

But other divisions have more tenure.

On water issues, it’s long been urban versus rural interests.

And for laws covering our court system, it’s long been the plaintiff’s bar vs. big business, doctors and the insurance industry.

That fight has mainly been carried out by two organizations: Texans for Lawsuit Reform, representing the people being sued, and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, representing the people doing the suing.

For many years the trial lawyers ruled and Texas had some of the most pro-plaintiff laws and rules in the nation.

One example: In some cases, if an alleged wrong took place near someone’s home in conservative North Texas, the suit could be filed in South Texas, where juries and judges were notoriously generous in their findings and their awards. 

The plaintiff merely had to swear he thought of himself as a South Texan because he used to live there, or maybe even had never lived there but planned to some day.

That’s just one of many examples Texans for Lawsuit Reform has used in recent times to swing the pendulum in Texas from being one of the most pro-plaintiff states to one of the most pro-defense.

Now the law limits the size of jury awards and state courts of appeals often overturn jury verdicts even when their awards to the plaintiff are below the limits.

It’s been a bad 15 years or so for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and, by extension, for lawyers who make their living in court.

But this week, according to the Texas Tribune, it got even worse for the organization.

It seems a past president of TTLA has started a competing organization.

Steve Mostyn, one of Houston’s elite plaintiff’s lawyers and a top donor to Democratic candidates, says TTLA is spending too much money on its executives and too little money electing friendly legislators and effectively lobbying them.

IRS records indicate that in 2011, nearly a third of TTLA’s $6 million income went to executive salaries.

Its executive director, Tommy Townsend, made a stunning $1,061,880.

By comparison, Richard Trabulsi, president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, had to survive on less than a third of that amount, a paltry $320,000.

It’s not as though Townsend could say, as Babe Ruth did when told he was asking for a salary higher than President Herbert Hoover’s, “I had a better year than he did.”

TTLA President Brad Parker told the Texas Tribune he welcomed the creation of the group and didn’t see it as a competitor.

But apparently, after hearing from members who were stunned by the Tribune story, he called an emergency meeting of members to deal with the controversy.

The venue?

Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel, one of the city’s swankiest.

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