A recent article in the New York Times sheds light on the impacts of tort reform on one Texas politician, Greg Abbott. In 1984, Mr. Abbott, then a recent law school graduate, was running in a Houston, TX suburb when a large oak tree fell on him, crushing his spine and crippling him for life. Mr. Abbott had “…no health insurance and no paycheck. But he had a good lawyer and access to a civil justice system that – back then – was generally hospitable toward plaintiffs. So Mr. Abbott sued.”
Fast forward 25 years, and Mr. Abbott is now the Texas attorney general and a leading candidate for governor. During his career as a judge and attorney general, Mr. Abbott has been a leader in the fight for tort reform, and is now “… facing new questions about the multi-million dollar settlement he was awarded and about his advocacy of laws that critics say have tilted the judicial scales toward civil defendants.”
Critics claim that these policies have made it virtually impossible for a plaintiff to win the kind of award that Mr. Abbott received. Tommy Fibich, a personal injury lawyer says, “You would think that a young man, at the start of his career, crippled by an injury, would want to make sure that others that may have the misfortune to follow in his footsteps would ensure that those people had the opportunity to be compensated for their injuries in the same way he was. He instead closed the door because that would help him get re-elected.”
Mr. Abbott argues that this is not true, and that if the same thing happened today, the injured party would have access to the same remedies he did. He claims that the legal system has been abused via invalid claims, which clog up the courts.
Under Mr. Abbott’s settlement, he receives payments, which began at $5,000 per month in 1986 and increased to nearly $15,000 per month in 2013. By the end of this year, he will have received about $5.8MM and is entitled to receive monthly income from the settlement until he dies. Mr. Abbott incurred only $82,811 in medical expenses a year after the incident, and he claimed two months of lost wages from a job that was supposed to start paying him not long after he was injured. He had future medical expenses to pay, but most of the settlement came from non-economic damages for pain and suffering and mental anguish, according to his attorney at the time, Don Riddle.
These non-economic damages are precisely what are now being limited by tort reform statutes in Texas, a good many for which Mr. Abbott actively campaigned. In 2003, the Texas Legislature capped non-economic damages in med mal cases at $250,000, a move that Mr. Abbott supported as attorney general.
Despite Mr. Abbott’s claims that injured parties can still obtain rewards in line with the one he received, his political efforts (and successes) over the past 20 years have made this much more difficult, if not impossible. Charles M. Silver, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law said changes in personal injury law and a pro-defendant posture in the judicial branch make such a large financial award much less likely.
The full article can be read here.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr