TIIII T I X A S server FEBRUARY 10, 1995 VOLUME 87, No. 3 FEATURES Talking Trash in Ferris By Louis Dubose 6 The Price of Mexico’s Soul By James Ridgeway 12 DEPARTMENTS Editorial Business Closes the Courts 3 Legislative Observer 5 James K. Galbraith A Balanced Budget Primer 11 Jim Hightower: `Fresh’ Chickens; Newt’s Deals; New GOP Digs; Peso Loans 14 Molly Ivins What About the Welfare Kings? 1 5 Books and the Culture Rebellion from the Roots Book review by Dick J. Reavis 17 Harvey Milk Opera review by Michael King 18 Before Sunrise & CineFest Movie reviews by Steven G. Kellman 19 Afterword King Knut Capital By Larry Bensky 22 Political Intelligence 24 Cover art by Michael Alexander BIG BUSINESS INTERESTS have worked for more than a decade to re duce their liability in the civil courts and they are about to score their biggest coup yet at the expense of the working class that might have cause some day to sue them. After years of complaining about the crippling effect of lawsuits on the insurance industry, they got lawmakers in 1987 to approve some limits on punitive damages and other changes in the civil justice system. In 1989 they pushed a workers compensation reform bill that made it more difficult for injured workers to attract attorneys and subjected them instead to an administrative process that employers, with their own lawyers, could dominate. In 1993 business interests rushed into law a product liability reform bill that made it more difficult for injured parties to sue manufacturers for damages and effectively exempted tobacco producers from liability for health problems caused by cigarettes. Only a parade at a House committee of wheelchair-bound children crippled by reactions to drugs stopped lawmakers from approving a similar liability exemption for vaccine manufacturers. Another bill that year removed the threat of foreign nationals suing Texas-based corporations. Now the business interests are poised to take many of the remaining prerogatives from potential plaintiffs. As the Senate Economic Development Committee gins up a package of “tort reform” bills designed to limit the recourse of working-class people and small businesses to the state’s courts, the best weapon consumer advocates have is people like Diane Papageorgiou who can personalize what civil justice is about. Papageorgiou, a 50-year-old resident of Bulverde, near San Antonio, received a breast implant in 1980, only to fmd later that the implant not only had not been tested by the manufacturer but that the documents that had been submitted to federal regulators had been falsified. A Realtor, she started to experience health problems in 1991, including symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis and lupus. She had to give up her business in 1993, but even after she lost her health insurance the implant manufacturer refused to admit any responsibility until she filed suit. Faced with the threat of losing millions of dollars in a trial Papageorgiou is certain she would have won, the company finally offered to settle in May 1994, on the eve of trial, two years after she had filed her lawsuit. “Without the threat of a lawsuit and the threat of punitive damages, I would have received nothing,” she said from her wheelchair at a news conference. She still is uninsurable, requires constant care and has to pay her own hospital bills. “Without that settlement I would have gone on public assistance and lost my home.” Vir E THERE ARE 12 bills in the o l libus tort reform package, and consumer advocates say most of them are bad, the key is Senate Bill 25, sponsored by Senator David Sibley, a Waco Republican, which would severely restrict the awarding of punitive damagesthe exemplary damages that are awarded on top of the actual damages suffered, to punish irresponsible individuals and corporations. The bill also would increase the burden of proof required to assess damages. Under SB 25 plaintiffs would have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt”a higher standard than the current “preponderance of evidence”that the injury resulted from either conscious fraud or malice. The jury also would have to vote unanimously, instead of the 10 out of 12 jurors under current law, to award punitive damages. Even then the jury could award only $200,000, or four times actual damages, whichever was greater. Sibley’s bill also would allow only one punitive damage award for each type of case. The legislation would prohibit punitive damages in cases involving products that have been approved for use by state or federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Texas Department of Agriculture. Punitive damages also would be banned in suits against property owners for crimes that took place on their property. Senator Teel Bivins, an Amarillo Republican, has filed Senate Bill 26 to limit suits under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act to transactions by individuals involving less than $500,000 and to block lawsuits by corporations, partnerships, large businesses and governments. The bill also would prevent Deceptive Trade Practices lawsuits against licensed professionals. Sibley is sponsoring SB 28 to change the legal doctrine of joint and several liability, under which everyone involved in an action is liable for that action. Under current law, a corporation that is 20 percent to blame can be ordered to pay all the damages in a case and the doctrine allows plaintiffs to go after “deep pockets.” Under Sibley’s bill, that corporation would only pay its portion of the damages. Senator John Montford, a Lubbock Democrat, is sponsoring SB 32 to limit the places where lawsuits can be filed. The bill would limit lawsuits in most cases to counties where the injury is alleged to have taken place, or the home county of the defendant, except in libel cases, where the suit would be filed in the home county of the plaintiff. It is an attempt to end forum shopping that also could force plaintiffs to pursue suits in remote venues SB 30 by Sibley would limit noneconomic damages in medical malpractice claims to $500,000. Sibley, a lawyer and former oral surgeon, would require people filing suit EDITORIAL Business Closes the Courts THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3
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