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Texans for Lawsuit Reform lobbyist Richard Weekley ALAN POGUE Tort Reform’s Bad Cop BY STEVE WISCH TRE IS LITTLE NEW in the perennial legislative agenda to overhaul the state’s civil justice system. For more than 10 years the business community has been raising alarms about “the unpredictability of lawsuits” and what they considered irresponsible jury decisions favoring plaintiffs in personal-injury cases. But this year solid majorities in the House and Senate were prepared to enact tort reforms demanded by corporations, a Republican Governor could not wait to sign them into law and Richard Weekly, a wealthy Houston real-estate developer and homebuilder, became a fixture in Austin. Weekly directed the work of Texans For Lawsuit Reform the state’s several tort-reform groups. He promoted 11 proposals that he contends will stop lawsuits from “undermining the economic integrity of Texas.” TLR’s members include some of the state’s richest businessmen. Kenneth Lay, chairman of Enron Corp; Houston businessman Walter Mischer Sr. and John Bookout, a former chairman of Shell Oil, are but a few, although in an interview Weekly noted that many of his supporters are small-business owners. Many of these same people had supported and underwritten tort reform groups such as the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which organized local “grassroots” campaigns to protest the impact of lawsuits on businesses, and Texas Civil Justice League, which acquired a reputation as the moderate group as Weekly pushed the hard line. What Weekly and Texans for Lawsuit Reform brought into the debate was money. They invested heavily in electoral politics and the $600,000 the group spent on three state Senate races last fall altered the makeup of that body, where most of the tort reform legislation was drafted. It provided Drew Nixon, a Carthage Republican, with at least $50,000 in his successful campaign for the East Texas Senate seat left open when Democrat Bill Haley retired to the lobby. Nixon defeated former state representative Curtis Soileau, a Lumberton Democrat, in a campaign in which Nixon characterized Soileau, a plaintiffs’ lawyer, as “an ambulance chaser.” Of TLR and Weekly’s support, Nixon says, “At that time, I probably thought it was more im Steve Wisch is a lawyer and a freelance writer in Houston. portant than it was. But, there’s no question it was important.” TLR contributed $120,000 to Senator Jerry Patterson, a Pasadena Republican seeking a second term, who beat Mike Martin, a progressive Democratic House member from Galveston who also is a practicing lawyer. Martin was widely regarded as one of the brightest members of the Legislature. The organization also backed Tom Haywood, the Wichita Falls Republican who beat incumbent Senator Steve Carriker, a Roby Democrat. The upset of veteran Senator Carl Parker, a liberal Democrat from Port Arthur, by Michael Galloway, a Republican from the Woodlands, was practically a bonus for the tort reformers. The net gain of three Republican seats in the Senate dramatically strengthened the business lobby in a chamber that was already sympathetic to tort reform and in the last session had restricted product-liability lawsuits and all but ended lawsuits brought against Texas corporations by foreign nationals. Election of Republican George W. Bush as governor on a platform that included tort reform ensured that a veto would be no obstacle. Bush was so enthusiastic about the tort reform agenda that he declared it an emergency item in order to place the legislation on a fast track. It was only after the riveting testimony of victims of injuries caused by corporations that legislative leaders let the tort reform lobby know that there would be negotiations. The first of the tort reforms to clear the House and Senate was Senate Bill 25, which reached the Governor’s desk on April 20. The bill, carried in the Senate by Waco Republican David Sibley, limits punitive damages that a jury may assess to two times the actual economic damages, plus no more than $750,000 in non-economic damages. According to critics, the law, which takes effect September 1, not only denies jurors the ability to assess huge awards as punishment for outrageous behavior, it favors high-wage earners over working-class plaintiffs. For example, if an airline’s gross negligence is found to have caused the deaths of a banker and a policeman, the banker’s family can receive substantially more in punitive damages: If the banker’s THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25