Voting, Texas Style
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By becky - Last updated: Monday, August 18, 2003 - Save & Share - 17 Comments

This Austin Chronicle article reminded me that we’ve got a vote coming up on September 13 (more on that later) on 22 propositions, including the hotly debated Proposition 12. Proposition 12 is about “tort reform” and would limit the amount of money that judges and juries can award a plaintiff for “noneconomic damages” — like pain and suffering — in a civil action, singling out lawsuits against doctors and “health care providers.”


Normally, this vote would happen on the first Tuesday in November, but it’s been bumped up. Oddly, enough there’s a big Houston election in November that might also bring out a number of minority voters. There’s also a UT home game at 11 am.

Regardless of where you stand on the issues, this seems like a blatant attempt to seriously reduce the number of voters who make it to the polls.

Posted in Politics • • Top Of Page

17 Responses to “Voting, Texas Style”

Comment from jank
Time August 18, 2003 at 2:38 pm

The 13th date seemed extremely odd to me, too. Although one of the perpetual gripes with elections is ‘Why are they always on a Tuesday? Why not do them on the weekends so that people don’t have to work out job conflicts to go vote?’

As far as Prop 12 goes, this (from the A.Chron) is why I’ll probably vote for it: … that corporations (for example, the owners of the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop that was the scene of Austin’s most notorious murder case) have been forced to improve safety conditions and procedures precisely because potential large damage settlements are more expensive than those precautions. Why is a Yogurt shop liable in any way, shape, or form for the actions of its customers?

The answer is that the companies (through their shareholder’s pockets) have much deeper pockets for civil awards than whoever actually committed the murders. Nowhere is it written that people (and especially their bottom-feeding lawyers) suddenly deserve a payout simply because something terrible happened to them or their relatives.

I’m all for people being able to recoup actual damages, and even some amount of non-economic damages, but in the case of gross negligence, I think that any punative damages should be paid to the state as opposed to individuals.

Comment from etrigan
Time August 18, 2003 at 3:02 pm

Why does capping damages solve the problem you bring up? Tort reform needs to come in the form of compulsory jury duty and removing the lawyer’s ability to eliminate jurors who are too smart to see through their bullshit.

Tort reform DOES NOT need to be managed by big corporate donations coercing politicians to obey their master’s whims.

Tort reform in regards to punitive damages does not need to be tied to some arbitrary number that we have to rely on politicians to update every year. I would support this bill if it calculated limits based on inflation, cost-of-living and a previous lifestyle precedent of the plaintiff.

Cure the disease, not the symptoms.

Comment from etrigan
Time August 18, 2003 at 4:25 pm

Scratch that last part — reverse it. “…and the stock market based federal filings of the pocket depth of the defendants.” Punitive damages are there to punish the evil-doer. If R.J. Reynolds was given a $250k punitive damage penalty they would still be marketing cigarettes to teenagers.

On another note, I’m a little rusty on the yogurt shop case, but didn’t the management of the yogurt shop establish a system where a small group of young teenage girls were responsible for the security of the store? That seems pretty guilty to me. Besides, a punitive damage isn’t just saying “don’t do this particular thing” it’s saying “you should be smart enough to not do stupid things”. A small punitive damage would encourage business owners to address issues superficially instead of completely readressing issues like safety of the employees.

Comment from Jank
Time August 18, 2003 at 11:33 pm

Tort reform DOES NOT need to be managed by big (BAR ASSOCIATIONS) coercing politicians to obey their master’s whims.

You say potato, I say stinkin’ lawyers. Besides, in the long run corporations aid a lot more people (shareholders, employees, subcontractors, etc, so on, and so forth) than do a couple of law offices. Do you think that RJR’s management really suffered as a result of the multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement? I’m betting that they’re still living pretty high on the hog, laughing about the whole thing at the country club with the attorneys who settled the case.

Who is really paying that award? I’ll give you a clue – the less annual income a person has, the more likely they are to smoke… Cigarette prices have skyrocketed recently, and it isn’t all taxes. And I’m pretty sure that RJR et al are still posting pretty solid returns.

(D)idn’t the management of the yogurt shop establish a system where a small group of young teenage girls were responsible…

I honestly know nothing about the yogurt shop case (pulled it out of the Chron since it seemed to me to be a pretty clear case of a suit that had little to no basis.) But what’s wrong with the chance to give young women the opportunity to have the responsibility to run a business? Why should the yogurt company be responsible for crime in the neighborhood? Why not hold the criminals liable? Or the Austin PD? Or whatever store was next door to the nationwide yogurt chain?

It’s like the lawyers in the Great White concert fire case in Rhode Island who, when faced with the prospect of only getting damages out of a nightclub owner and a washed-up Hair Band decided to sue a major oil company since one of their thousands of gas station owners decided to give out free tickets to the show. Yeah. That greedy guy should have known that there were going to be unauthorized pyrotechnics which would set some non-code sound insulation on fire which was put in by the greedy night club owner so as not to irk his neighbors when he ran shows at night. Man, the board of that oil company’s really responsible for that tragedy. I bet they eat babies for breakfast, too…

Again, it comes down to the simple fact that by going after the national chain, the lawyers in the yogurt case had a chance to increase by several orders of magnitude the fee they’d pocket as 1/3 of whatever huge settlement they could convince a jury to award. So much the better that they’d have some tearful women and mothers on the stand. Dewey eyes and streaked mascara win votes with a jury; an MBA doesn’t win any sympathy on the stand. And local murderers and ineffective cops don’t make the big bucks.

I can also guarantee that there were probably a half dozen other potential employers who decided to either avoid whatever area the yogurt shop was in as a result of the award. The lawyers got theirs, but what about the folks in the community who didn’t get jobs as a result? What about the yogurt company shareholders whose profits went to pay the verdict? Who do those people go after for damages?

What’s going to happen when Hammer (as a hypothetical) decides to go after Dell for making hardware without any protection against making illegal copies of ‘You Can’t Touch This?’ Think it can’t happen? Three years ago it was laughable in The Onion that folks would sue for food making them fat.

Comment from etrigan
Time August 19, 2003 at 1:03 am

I may be biased since I worked with the step-dad of one of the girls who was murdered. Parents should have a reasonable expectation that their children’s employers are providing security for them. Leaving these girls alone to close up shop was criminal. I guaranty that business owners all over Austin hired security staff to patrol their shopping centers at night after this. That’s a good thing.

Besides, in the long run corporations aid a lot more people

So if you employ a lot of people and your stock-holders like you, you get off the hook for having lax security and letting your staff at one store get murdered?

Again, it comes down to the simple fact that by going after the national chain, the lawyers in the yogurt case had a chance to increase by several orders of magnitude the fee they’d pocket

You’re sounding a little paranoid, and you’re ignoring personal responisbility. Not every lawyer is out there for the sole purpose of increasing their take. Why should a business not have to accept responsibility for the events that happen on thier premises?

And what does capping damages have to do with lawyers going after corporations? This amendment says that if your son impaled his arm at a McDonald’s playscape and had to have it amputated the congressional branch of the Texas government would instruct the judicial branch how much his arm was worth and McD’s would have no compulsion to correct the problem.

This is not Tort Reform. This is the Texas congress bypassing the problems in the judicial system. It won’t stop the lawsuits.

Comment from Jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 1:42 am

I think we’re at somewhat of an impasse here, so I’ll be brief.

Parents should have a reasonable expectation that their children’s employers are providing security for them.

My contention in this specific case is that the employee’s security should be a function of the cops, not the employers in this case. Murder’s a criminal action, taken by individuals. It’s hard for me to understand how the store’s owner could have anticipated that someone would try to kill the employees. A rent-a-cop may or may not have made a difference, and another body on the payroll may have tipped the books towards closing the store. The store owners were already paying for security in the taxes they passed on to the city. And it’s an especially dangerous precedent to set by insisting that business and individuals only get the security that they directly contract.

(Y)ou’re ignoring personal responsibility/i>.

No, not at all. I’m putting it either on myself (in the McD’s example), or on the murder(s) (in the yogurt example). With McD’s, or with any playground, IMO, it’s up to me to keep the boy from tearing off his arm. If I’m not comfortable with the equipment, I ought not let him play on it. McD’s makes the equipment available, ultimately it’s up to me, or whomever I’ve trusted my progeny with, to make the decision if it’s safe or not.

Think of the cool playground stuff we had as kids – teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, jungle gyms. Actual, fun equipment with a slight element of danger. Sure, a lot of kids got bloody lips or skinned knees. But the stuff rocked. Now go check out a playground built in the last decade. Most of the cool stuff we used to play with is gone. Someone’s sued away my ability to decide if I’d like my kid to play on that stuff.

Lastly, court action is not the only action that can be taken to bring about change in corporate policy. There’s still a whole host of actions which have been successful in the past, from boycotts, letter writing campaigns, etc. The difference between the other actions and torts is that in order for other campaigns to be effective, it requires participation by more than one or two angry people. In short, it requires a much more democratic process than the current system of torts.

Comment from Jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 7:44 am

A couple of more things …

PART the First
the congressional branch of the Texas government would instruct the judicial branch how much his arm was worth

And this is less ridiculous than an unelected, unaccountable attorney with a vested financial interest instructing 12 anonymous people, selected specifically to exclude those with college degrees, knowledge of current affairs, etc. what damages ‘should’ be given?

Why not turn over the task of establishing punitive valuations over to elected officials, who are accountable to the people every few years? There are a couple of advantages to this:
1. Even under current campaign finance laws, there’s not a whole lot of personal gain a legislator could see without running afoul of the law.
2. Currently, the biggest determiners in the size of jury awards are the trial location and the plaintiff’s attorney. By standardizing the award for a successful case, everyone approaching the courts could expect the same justice, instead of some folks having access to more lucrative venues and awards for the same damages than others.
3. Legislatures change. If the Lawyers’ Lobby could persuade a majority of Texans to elect folks who sided with them, we could do away with limits.

PART the Second
Part of my problem with punitive damages paid to individuals (as opposed to fines and such) is that they trivialize something priceless. Actual damages such as past and future medical bills, lost wages, etc are pretty easy to calculate; there’s an entire industry that does that. But hey – is a daughter worth a million? A billion? Would a trillion bucks bring her back?

Comment from etrigan
Time August 19, 2003 at 9:55 am

instructing 12 anonymous people, selected specifically to exclude those with college degrees, knowledge of current affairs, etc.

You’ve hit the nail on the head. This is the problem with the judicial system. Why aren’t the Texas GOP trying to fix this? Because they don’t want to face a jury of competent people for thier crimes. They actually like the system the way it is, but the people lining their pockets have asked for a change.

and this: There’s already a law that states punitive damages can not do irreparable fiscal harm to a company. Is that not enough?

Comment from jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 10:37 am

Last I checked juror selection was left up to the attorneys in a case to make sure that their clients got a fair trial. Are you saying that the legislature should take action to prevent the ability for folks in court to ensure they have a jury of their peers?

Comment from etrigan
Time August 19, 2003 at 11:35 am

I’m saying that the legislature should take action to provide the ability for folks in court to ensure they have a jury of their peers.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be selected by attorneys for a jury panel because I have the ability to think for myself. I think rejection of jurors should be applicable to only specific conflicts of interest, and otherwise be completely random.

Comment from cynsmith
Time August 19, 2003 at 11:37 am

If I lived in Texas right now, I would have to vote no on Prop 12 simply because of the cost-effective issue. Corporations already are in the habit of paying fines (in the rare instance that they are levied) for environmental and safety infringements rather than the more expensive upgrades. If disabled people weren’t allowed to sue under the ADA, compliance there would be even more limited than it already is. There’s little doubt they would do the same in the case of lawsuits. However, let’s not pretend that there is no such thing as a frivolous lawsuit.

I find it ironic that jank is the one playing the cynic here. Is it really easier to be cynical about the motives of lawyers than it is to be cynical about the motives of corporations? Let’s have some equal-opportunity skepticism here, shall we?

Comment from jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 12:07 pm

My cynicism here comes from the numbers game. It’s much easier for a small handful of lawyers to co-opt the legal system (with no negative consequences if they’re thrown out of court) than it is for hundreds of people in a company to conspire to take candy from babies.

As far as issues like the ADA – Prop 12 is not an effort to deny citizen’s abilities to sue for actual damages, or for compliance with statutes. It’s an effort to limit million and billion dollar awards for ‘noneconomic damges’, often referred to as ‘jackpot justice.’ Handicapable folks will still get ramps and accomodations.

Comment from cynsmith
Time August 19, 2003 at 1:08 pm

These cases don’t really require a conspiracy of hundreds – just willfull negligance.

Here’s a real-life example. What, other than lawsuits, prompted Ford and Goodyear to rectify the tire blowout situation? How many lives were lost before they were forced to correct the problem? I, personally, know of one. That’s one four-year-old who will grow up without his father. You’re right – you can’t put a price on his life. But would it have been worth it for Goodyear to do the recall if they only had to worry about $250,000 per life lost in Texas?

Comment from jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 1:26 pm

would it have been worth it for Goodyear to do the recall if they only had to worry about $250,000 per life lost in Texas?

Again, the potential damages against Goodyear in this case wouldn’t have been limited to $250,000 per life in the tire cases. Goodyear would still be liable for any actual damages, including lost wages, medical bills, counseling, etc. What the plaintiffs wouldn’t be able to do would be get extra millions just to ‘make Goodyear pay’.

And tort reform does absolutely nothing to restrict the media’s ability to report on product defects, and allow consumers to make their own decisions to boycott products which aren’t safe. Finally, even $250,000 (plus court costs, plus actual damages) is signifigant when the alternative is less than $1,000 for a set of new tires once the problem had been identified.

BTW- pulling from a Law Firm’s website, the average settlement from Ford has been about $235K for the 17 suits settled, Firestone’s paid about $860K per head.

Comment from etrigan
Time August 19, 2003 at 2:42 pm

I still have to question how we can put one solid number to punitive damages. Boom/bust and context of defendant have to be taken into account. $250k for Joe’s Garage today will have a completely different effect than it will for Glommo International Corp 10 years from now.

Comment from jank
Time August 19, 2003 at 2:52 pm

What’s Glommo traded under? :)

No, I understand this point entirely. My response would be that we do somewhat arbitrary determination of pentalties all the time. Speeding tickets aren’t indexed based on federal tax returns; why should the price of negligence be? Is someone who’s harmed by a wealthy defendant more damaged than someone who’s harmed by a a defendant of lesser means?

It’s also a matter of fairness to the plaintiffs. If you are injured, odds are that your case will get less attention from a law firm if the only potential defendant is Joe’s Garage, with assets of a hydraulic lift, three junked cars, and $120K in cash. If somehow the case can be tied to Glommo, the $10 billion multinational, attorneys are going to be much more interested.

(Yes, I do know that there are good, non-greedy folks out there on the Bar who will do their best to ensure that Joe pays for his negligence. However, they’re not likely to have the same resources available as those who can would go after Glommo.)

Comment from etrigan
Time August 19, 2003 at 3:26 pm

punitive adj. – Inflicting or aiming to inflict punishment; punishing.

How can you punish Glommo corp if $250k is what the spend on 1-ply toilet paper for their worldwide sweatshop factories every month?

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