Here's a great piece on what Bush means when he says he wants "tort reform." The big money behind the "tort reform" movement holds up what Bush did in Texas as their model. And the results aren't pretty.
Go check it out. From Southern Exposure, voice of the progressive south:
"TORT REFORM," LONE STAR STYLE
Under Governor Bush, Texas led the way in making it harder for ordinary citizens to get their day in court. What can we expect if the corporate-backed "tort reform" movement succeeds in its dream: spreading Lone Star justice across America?
By Stephanie Mencimer
SPECIAL TO FACING SOUTH/SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
On June 23, 1999, 24-year-old Juan Martinez and his uncle Jose Inez Rangel were hydro-testing a pipe at the Phillips Chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas. The pipe was about 10 feet from a reactor that manufactured plastic used in drinking cups, food containers, and medical equipment. At a crucial moment, plant operators opened the valves in the reactor out of sequence, sending an excess of a volatile chemical into the reactor, where it mixed with a catalyst to create a vapor cloud-and a fiery explosion. The blast coated Martinez and Rangel with 500-degree molten plastic. They were burned alive.
Martinez and Rangel were not the first workers to die at the Phillips plant. All told, 30 workers had been killed and hundreds severely wounded at the plant in the previous 11 years. The worst of the accidents happened in 1989, when an explosion killed 23 people at the plant. The chemical company paid out $40 million to compensate for the death of one of the victims.
In the lawsuit filed a decade later by Martinez's widow, attorney John Eddie Williams would write, "No other serial killer in this state has been allowed to go unpunished and virtually unbridled for so long."
A few months after he wrote that line, Williams was downtown taking the deposition of a worker from the plant. Williams looked out the window, he says, and saw smoke. Another explosion at the plant. And another worker dead-a man who had survived the 1989 blast. Seventy others were hurt, including four men who suffered third-degree burns over half their bodies. The explosion set off car alarms a mile away and closed nearby schools. "The guy being deposed would have been there," says Williams.
All the pieces were in place for a big verdict-a statement from a jury of average citizens who would punish the company for its long record of death and indifference. After he presented the case to a mock jury, Williams says, the mock jurors were so horrified by the facts some of them began boycotting Phillips products.
But Phillips had little reason to worry. The company didn't even bother to make a settlement offer to Martinez's family. It knew it could come into court cushioned by a series of "tort-reform" measures championed by George W. Bush during his first term as governor of Texas. Among them was a cap on punitive damages, signed into law by Bush in 1995, which limited such awards to the greater of $200,000 or twice the economic damages, plus up to $750,000 for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
Bush hailed the cap as way of reducing "frivolous" lawsuits. In order for the jury in the Martinez case to award punitive damages in excess of the cap, it would have to find that Phillips had "intentionally and knowingly" killed Martinez. In layman's terms, the legalese meant that the aggrieved had to prove Phillips murdered Martinez, on purpose-a standard no civil case in Texas has ever met.
The jury, which was not told about the damage cap during the trial, found Phillips had been negligent and acted with malice in Martinez's death. It awarded his widow, daughter, and parents $7.8 million in actual damages and $110 million in punitive damages-the equivalent of one month's profits for the company. But state law would reduce the punitive damages to $3.2 million, making the entire award a fraction of one percent of Phillips's annual profits.
For Texas trial lawyers, awards of that size give mega-corporations like Phillips the green light to make business and safety decision based on life-versus-profit calculations they term "Pinto math." That's the crude calculation used by the Ford Motor Company in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it decided it was cheaper to let hundreds of people die each year than to spend about $5 per vehicle to prevent Pintos' gas tanks from exploding in rear-end accidents. Without the threat of high punitive damages in wrongful death lawsuits, Texas oil and chemical companies like Phillips have little incentive to spend money to improve unsafe plants and pipelines. Certainly the government isn't going to make an impact: Federal officials cited Phillips for serious safety violations in the 1999 explosion that killed Martinez and Rangel, but fined the company just $140,000. Steven Daniels, a researcher with the American Bar Foundation, says "Workers are just at the mercy now of their employers an
It's a state of affairs whose genesis can be traced back to Bush's long-shot run for governor of Texas in 1994. Bush won by running a relentlessly on-message campaign, harping on three or four key issues - among them his proposed limit on "junk lawsuits" by consumers and injured workers. In January 1995, just a few days after he took office, Bush met with members of a corporate-funded group, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, at a salsa factory outside Austin. Declaring a legislative emergency on out-of-control lawsuits, Bush said "Tort reform is the most constructive and positive and meaningful economic development plan Texas can adopt." Calling the laws a "job creation package," Bush went on to sign a series of measures that severely restricted citizens' ability to seek civil justice.
Now, as Bush seeks his second term in the White House, he and his backers have gleefully attacked Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards as a parasitic trial lawyer - and Bush is fighting for another four years in office in which he hopes to get a chance to finally spread his Texas tort reform agenda nationwide. "He's trying to take some of the worst policy with the state of Texas and import it nationally," says Austin plaintiff attorney Mark Perlmutter. Nine years into the transformation of the Lone Star State's civil justice system, the experience of Texas is a preview of what the rest of the country might look like if Bush succeeds.
Read the rest here: www.southernstudies.org