Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) Supports Legislation (HB 1602) to Stop Lawsuit Abuse Against Mariti

Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) joined with every dredging company doing business in Texas and almost every Texas port in supporting HB 1602, introduced by Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, which will close a loophole in Texas venue law that has resulted in an explosion of lawsuits against the dredging industry in South Texas.

At a late night hearing on the legislation in March, TLR Chairman and CEO Dick Weekley said: “Texas’ maritime industry is being deluged by one of the most egregious examples of lawsuit abuse we have seen. This state cannot afford to have our ports and waterways, which contribute $178 billion to our economy and $5 billion in state and local taxes every year -- crippled by those who are exploiting a loophole in our state venue law.”

TLR endorsed HB 1602 joining Maritime Jobs for Texas and the Texas Ports Association which includes the Port of Houston, Port of Brownsville, Port of Port Mansfield, Port of Port Isabel, Port of Victoria, Port of Harlingen, Port of Palacios, Port of Orange, Port of Port Arthur and the Port of West Calhoun as well as the Texas Waterways Operators Association, Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association and the Dredging Contractors of America.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the state’s largest civil justice reform organization, is a bipartisan, volunteer-led coalition with more than 15,000 supporters residing in more than 757 Texas communities and representing 1,253 different businesses, professions and trades.

•A Summary of HB 1602:

HB 1602 amends Section 15.018 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code:

The bill establishes venue for Jones Act claims filed in Texas state courts as follows:

(1) In the county in which all or a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred; or

(2) in the county where the defendant’s principal office in Texas is located;

(3) if venue is unavailable in one of the counties described in (1) or (2) above, then the claimant can file a Jones Act claim in the county where the plaintiff resided at the time the cause of action accrued.

The federal Jones Act applies to personal injury claims of certain maritime workers against their employers.

In 1995, the Texas general venue statute was reformed. At that time, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock made an exception from the general venue statute for Federal Employees Liability Act and Jones Act claims. This was a political concession. There is no merit-based reason to exclude Jones Act claims from the generally prevailing venue rule.

There has been an explosion of Jones Act claims against dredging companies in recent years. The claims are filed primarily by two attorneys, in four South Texas counties. 58% of all current Jones Act claims against dredgers nationwide are filed in South Texas.

The plaintiff’s lawyer handling most of these cases in South Texas has stated, in essence, the following: (i) filing a lawsuit in Starr county adds 75% value to the lawsuit, (ii) in Harris or Galveston counties, for example, you need to show the defendant is at fault, but in Starr County all you need to show is that the plaintiff wasn’t hurt at, say, Wal-Mart on his day off, (iii) in Hidalgo County, the judge will give the plaintiff’s lawyer two hours to conduct jury selection, allowing him to knock off of the jury panel any “sophisticated” citizens, such as school teachers and persons who work for hospitals.

The onslaught of lawsuits against dredgers has already caused the cancellation of two dredging projects for Texas ports. Texas has no natural deep water ports, and regular dredging of our ports and waterways is essential to maintaining Texas’s crucial role in global commerce. HB 1602 merely puts maritime workers in the same venue position as most Texas workers.

Editor’s note: The bill’s sponsors say that this legislation will positively affect one million Texas jobs, $178 billion in annual sales and $5 billion in state and local taxes, representing 10% of the Texas Gross State Product. Additionally, they listed the following facts:

•1,000 port facilities are located along thousands of miles of Texas channel operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers;

•15,000 ships pass through Texas ports every year - 20 percent of the national total;

•300 million tons of cargo pass through Texas ports every year;

•40 percent of military combat power -- equipment, materials, supplies and people -- goes through Texas ports;

•60 percent of the jet fuel used by the U.S. military is transported through Sabine Pass;

•300 fuel trucks are needed to carry the cargo carried by a common two-barge tow.