We Can Dig It
Last week, the Port of Houston began a long-awaited project that will expand the Houston Ship Channel to accommodate more and larger cargo ships. This much-needed expansion supports Texas’ booming population and economic growth, enabling more imports and exports into and from the Lone Star State.
But without tort reform, this project wouldn’t be possible.
That’s because back in 2003, a lawsuit abuse scheme against dredging companies in Texas threatened to shut our ports down.
You see, while Texas has 11 deep-draft ports, we don’t have any natural deep-water ports, which means our waterways have to be dredged constantly to keep ship channels open for business. So, whether it’s a new port project, expansion of an existing port or regular maintenance and upkeep, dredging is critical to the ongoing functioning of Texas ports up and down the Gulf.
But back in the early 2000s, a loophole in Texas law had allowed an explosion of personal injury lawsuits under the federal Jones Act, which allows workers to pursue lawsuits against dredgers for injuries occurring at sea. The Texas law allowed these lawsuits to be pursued in the county in which the plaintiff resided, rather than the county where the alleged injury happened. Under this lawsuit abuse scheme, almost 60 percent of all personal injury lawsuits against dredging companies in the nation were filed in just four Texas counties, hand selected by the plaintiff’s attorney because certain judges in those counties were extremely favorable to that attorney.
As is always the case with abusive lawsuits, liability costs went through the roof—increasing for some Texas dredging companies by as much as 300 percent—and led to the cancellation of dredging projects in Port Mansfield and the Port of Brownsville and a reluctance by dredgers to continue to operate in Texas. We knew we had to act quickly to stop this abuse before it wrecked our maritime industry.
Thanks to a common-sense reform advocated for by TLR in the 2007 legislative session, dredgers are able to operate in Texas. This reform enacted a new statute allowing maritime lawsuits to be filed in the county in which the defendant had its headquarters or where the injury occurred. Merely changing the venue available for these lawsuits immediately ended the apparent recruitment of clients that led to the litigation explosion in the first place.
Today, Texas’ ports are thriving. According to a 2018 report by the Texas Comptroller, $261 billion, or 35.3 percent, of Texas’ international trade traveled through the state’s seaports. The Port of Houston alone accounted for 61.3 percent of the seaport trade, or about $159.8 billion.
That’s real money in the pockets of Texas families, real goods on our store shelves and a real impact on our state’s economy.