Texas Frames Tort Debate: A Just Consumer Weapon, Or a Lawyer's Meal Ticket?

BRIAN KENNEDY was once sued by a man who claimed to have been pelted by rocks called down from the sky by Mr. Kennedy's radio station. So two weeks ago, when the El Paso businessman heard Gov. George W. Bush promise in his inauguration speech to curb ''junk'' lawsuits, he gave a Texas-size cheer.

''I nearly started The Wave,'' says Kennedy.

Reforming the legal system is a hot topic from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas.

Conservatives and even some liberals want to cut down on so-called frivolous lawsuits. Yet critics, including consumer groups and trial lawyers, argue that changes being proposed may do more harm than good.

Perhaps nowhere is the issue more prominent than in Texas, whose wheel-of-fortune justice system is world-famous for big jury awards. How lawmakers here decide to move -- and the controversy it kicks up -- may set the tone for the debate nationwide.

''Four years ago Texans didn't understand tort reform,'' says Governor Bush. ''They do now.''

Those advocating change can come up with plenty of reasons to do so. A Texan's annual grocery bill is $280 higher because of liability costs, says Jon Opelt, executive director of the Houston chapter of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA).

Indeed, the added expense on every product and service, sometimes called the ''lawsuit tax,'' costs $2,700 a year for a family of four in Texas, according to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The most frivolous lawsuits in Texas last year, as chosen by CALA members, include:

*A criminal who sued a county for accidentally releasing him from jail, after which he committed another crime.

*A Fort Worth man who sued Elvis Presley Enterprises, claiming his frequent telephone calls from Elvis prove the entertainer is alive.

*Ostrich breeders who blamed a blimp overflight for their birds' infertility.

Numerous tort reform bills have been introduced in the state Legislature. Last week Bush issued emergency authorization for the bills to be considered immediately.

Yet not everyone embraces change. Some groups warn reform may not only do away with frivolous lawsuits, but legitimate ones against professionals who abuse clients and against businesses that make or sell dangerous products.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, argues citizens must have access to the courts. Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's group, calls the reform proposals a ''consumer nightmare.''

The most influential foes of reform are the 4,000 trial lawyers, who keep an average of 40 percent of jury awards or settlements. Wil-liam Whitehurst, head of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, agrees with some reforms but says others go too far. He argues they would create ''an environment of no personal or corporate responsibility.''

Bush promises ''fair and balanced'' reforms. Backing him are people such as Betty Rau, safety manager for Smith's Food and Drug Centers, a regional grocery chain. Ms. Rau says that her stores in Texas average eight times the annual number of personal injury lawsuits as those in Arizona or New Mexico.

Although they back tort reform, some members of the business community use the current system to try to harass competitors out of business, critics say. Such actions are a ''huge aspect'' of lawsuit abuse in Texas, notes Winter Prosapio, executive director of CALA in San Antonio. A Texas jury awarded $12 billion -- the all-time high -- in a dispute between Pennzoil and Texaco.

In Washington, House Republicans have made tort reform an element of their ''Contract With America.'' Also taking up the cause are such liberals as George McGovern, the former presidential contender.

He became a fan of reform after leaving politics and entering the hotel business, where he says he was hit by two ''off the wall'' lawsuits.

Americans spend $300 billion a year on litigation, according to the President's Council on Competitiveness. And that's just lawyers' fees and court costs, not money awarded. One-fourth of filed lawsuits are frivolous or fraudulent, the American Board of Trial Advocates estimates.

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