Texas Court Filings Are Down 17 Percent: Tort Reform Is Blamed

Harris County Courtroom
Harris County, Texas

Lana ShadwickCivil lawsuit filings are down 17 percent in Texas over the last 10 years. Texas lawyers put forth a variety of reasons for the drop but the consensus is that tort reform is responsible. The bad news, some say, is that medical malpractice cases have all but been annihilated.  Top civil trial lawyer W. Mark Lanier says the majority of valid medical malpractice cases have to be turned away.

According to an article in Texas Lawyer magazine, there were 505,104 case filings in Texas in 2014, and 610,355 cases in 2005. County civil courts saw even a bigger drop — 36 percent — in new case filings over the last 10 years. District courts saw an 11 percent decline.

David Slayton, administrator director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, first noticed the drop when e-filing revenue came in lower than was anticipated. Slayton has had to ask the Texas Legislature for $8.5 million in order to make-up for the revenue shortfall.

The Texas Lawyer article discussed the types of cases that had increased, as well as those that had declined. Auto accident lawsuits, condemnation cases, and contract cases filed in district court, increased over the 10-year time frame. In fact, auto accident cases were up by 13 percent but there was a 38 percent drop in tort cases that did not involve a vehicle — these dropped from 20,051 in 2005 to 12,441 in 2014.

Debt cases in county trial courts were down 53 percent (57,711 in 2005 as compared to 27,078 in 2014), but cases in district courts involving accounts, contracts, and notes went up 18 percent (35,996 in 2005 compared to 42,562 cases in 2014).

According to the article, Nathan Hecht, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court said “Anytime there’s that kind of shift, then you’ve got to wonder what is happening. But I think right now, I’m not sure what the answer is.”

The four lawyers interviewed by Texas Lawyer all blamed tort reform for the drop in the number of filings.

The president of the State Bar of Texas, Trey Apffel, was reported to say “To put it bluntly, there’s been a rollback of individual rights and remedies over the last two decades. You can call it tort reform if you want – that’s the term everyone knows and understands – but it has had a clear effect on the cases that are filed, because a lot of the rights and remedies that existed at one time are no longer there or they have been diluted.”

Bryan Blevins, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, and partner in the Provost Umphrey Law firm in Beaumont, said although people have injuries, now they have “fewer rights and opportunities to recover.” “The reason they are not being filed today is either the law has eliminated their cause of action or the law has built such cost barriers to bringing an action that they are no longer economically feasible.”

The article discussed other reasons case filings may be down, including the role that arbitration clauses and pre-lawsuit mediation may have played.

Chief Justice Hecht told Texas Lawyer that the judiciary should look at the statistics. “If it really is down, and if it’s down for some reason – and it’s a good reason – then we ought to try to make sure that we can improve on it. If it’s down because going to the courthouse is too expensive and people have just given up on trying to get there, then that’s a bad reason, and we should try to get the cost down.”

In response to an inquiry from Breitbart Texas, W. Mark Lanier wrote, “The filings that are down (other torts) are not down because of costs, as suggested by Chief Justice Hecht. It doesn’t cost anything to file those cases. It is done by contingent fee lawyers. It is down because of tort reform and the fact that positive verdicts can rarely be sustained on appeal. Medical malpractice, for example, is basically gone in Texas with tort reform. We have to say no to 9 out of 10 medical malpractice cases that are DESERVING of a day in court because of the caps on non-economic damages.”

Lanier continued, “Car accidents are up for two reasons. First, there are more drivers as the population increases. Second, insurance companies are more bold to deny claims they know they owe because of the anti-plaintiff stigma in the Texas courts. We hear that from the insurance companies on a regular basis.”

Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2.


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