Texas “Tort Reform?”

The Texas Supreme Court held on Friday that a law solely enacted to protect one well-connected company from suits brought by Texans dying from exposure to its asbestos was unconstitutional.

John Robinson contracted the fatal disease of mesothelemia when he served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years at a plant that Crown Cork and Seal had purchased. In 2002 Robinson sued Crown (now Crown Holdings, Inc.) in state court in Houston for his injuries.

In response, in 2003 Crown paid $200,000 to a team of lobbyists, including a woman who had worked for Governor Perry as his “fitness czar” and a second who had conveniently hired Governor Perry’s wife as an “aide.”

In 2003, as a result, the state legislature enacted a new statute which retroactively prevented injured Texans from suing all companies that succeeded to liability on May 13, 1968. Guess who that company was?

In 2003, Robinson tragically died just a few days after Crown obtained a summary judgment based on the brand new law that shielded it from liability. However his widow — who lives in the Dallas area — valiently continued fighting for her deceased husband’s rights in court.

In 2003, the powerful Speaker of the House who got the law passed was Tom Craddick. Craddick began working on behalf of Crown in 2004 and was even able to have a personal audience with the Pope as a result.

Justice Nathan Hecht, writing for the six justice majority, noted that Crown had also had been able to obtain similar retroactive laws in 10 other states. However he noted that Pennsylvania courts already have ruled the law unconstitutional.

Our newest justice, Debra Lehrmann, who ably served us on the bench here in Tarrant County for 22 years, concurred with the decision.

Justice Hecht said constitutional prohibitions on retroactive laws are designed to preempt this weighing of interests of justice for companies like Crown against the interests of plaintiffs such as the Robinsons.

The company has already charged off anticipated losses from these cases against future earnings, so any court judgments will not affect the company financially.

Governor Perry stated in 2003 that the only reason the law was passed was to save Texas jobs.

Crown earned a record $1.2 billion on sales of $8 billion last year and has increased its hiring in Texas.

Tom Phillips, who served as the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1988 to 2004, represents Crown, which will ask for a new hearing before the Court.

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