Texas Jury Trials Blocked by Supreme Court and Legislature

“Civil jury trials are becoming rare in Texas,” according to today’s Dallas Morning News. Only 1 in 183 of civil disputes, like personal injury lawsuits, were decided by Texas juries last year. The article largely blames the major restrictions imposed by appeals judges and politicians who have mounted a full frontal attack on our system of justice.

As a board certified injury lawyer, I have tried and/or settled several thousand civil cases in the last 31 years and have found that most disputes can be successfully resolved between the parties. But preventing or even hindering individuals from their centuries old right to have their cases heard by juries is patently unfair,

since the United States and Texas Constitutions guarantee all citizens the right to a trial before one’s peers – the heart of English common law since the Magna Carta in 1215.

Why is this happening? The article points out several reasons.

First, the higher courts have issued so many anti-plaintiff decisions that we trial lawyers are understandably reluctant to have our favorable jury verdicts reversed for unfair political reasons. I blogged about this just this past Friday.

A well known Dallas attorney stated in the article that “for the past 10 years or so, the appellate courts in Texas have made it clear that they do not respect jury verdicts. All the lawyers know that jury verdicts will be met with great suspicion by the Texas Supreme Court and the courts of appeals. What is the result? People settle more quickly for results that are less than fully just.”

Second, the legislature has passed many new laws, especially the draconian 2003 tort reform package, that have eliminated or severely curtailed the rights of injured persons to file suit, let alone collect the damages they sustained — sometimes horrific — due to the negligence of others.

Third, the Supreme Court facilitated the use of no reason summary judgments to dismiss suits. In 2010, trial judges entered almost 5,600 of these, 30 percent more than they did 15 years ago, and reversing them is difficult and expensive.

“There are a significant number of judges who simply do not trust juries,” said another prominent Dallas lawyer. “These judges have the opinion that regular people, also known as jurors, do not have the ability to understand the evidence or will be too emotional to decide cases. And that is very sad.”

Fourth, many contracts and procedures demand that individuals go through the expensive, often one-sided process of arbitration rather than be able to file suit. Dallas district judge Ken Molberg observed that “binding mandatory arbitration has been driving cases out of our court system and toward rent-a-judges. And tort reform has discouraged or impeded people’s right to jury trials.. . it means that real people are not getting their claims heard — at least not by a jury of their peers.”

Fifth, all judges require that cases go through the mediation process, which greatly increases the chances of resolving lawsuits successfully. We have excellent mediators in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and I always welcome the opportunity to argue my client’s cases at mediations to see if I can convince opposing counsel and insurance companies to compensate them fairly and quickly. In January I attended a seminar that taught advanced negotiation techniques (okay, it was on a cruise ship, how could I resist?).

Fifth, jury verdicts in cases without substantial injuries and damages have decreased, so people are more eager to accept out of court settlements.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht opined that the decline was due solely to the high cost of litigation. That is only one of the reasons for this.

I am proud to have been successful trying cases to juries and settling lawsuits out of court and will continue to fight for my clients as hard as I can.

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