Attorney Fees, COVID-19 Liability: These 10 Bills Affect Texas Lawyers and Courts
By Robert Storace
Lawmakers on Tuesday might return home after the gavel fell on Memorial Day to adjourn the Texas Legislature.
It was an unusual session for lawmakers who meet every two years in Austin, with competing priorities, but they still managed to pass bills that change civil litigation and the courts in the Lone Star State.
Because of the pandemic, lobbyists were hampered in communicating with each other, and with lawmakers and their staff. That made it hard to work out compromises on bills, said Mark Vane, principal at Husch Blackwell Strategies, the lobbying subsidiary of Husch Blackwell.
“There’s still a big face-to-face component of what we do,” Vane said. “The time in the Capitol cafeteria, or the halls or the restaurants and bars is critical.”
COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that put a damper on the session.
“Then the winter storm hit,” said Locke Lord partner Robert Miller of Austin. “It’s been a conservative session on social issues, and that has caused fights by Democrats in the House, resulting in some of the Senate’s priorities on social conservatism not passing, and then it resulted in the Senate killing House bills.”
Although fewer bills passed this year than normal, the Texas Legislature still approved a smattering of bills that will impact attorneys, the legal profession, judges and the courts. Texas Lawyer talked with Capitol observers to pull together a listing of 10 pieces of legislation that attorneys need to check out.
In addition to Miller and Vane, the sources we consulted on the list include State Bar of Texas Deputy Executive Director KaLyn Laney; Jerry Bullard, shareholder in Adams, Lynch & Loftin in Grapevine; Texas Office of Court Administration Director David Slayton; John Sepehri, special counsel with Foley & Lardner in Austin; and Craig Chick, public affairs director at Foley & Lardner in Austin.
Here are the bills of interest to lawyers and judges that were on the top of their lists.
House Bill 19 would change procedures for personal injury litigation against commercial motor vehicle operators. The lawmakers sent it to Gov. Greg Abbott on May 31.
Attorney fee recovery
House Bill 1578 would tweak Texas law that deals with the recovery of attorney fees in litigation. Current law allowed fee recoveries against individuals and corporations. The bill would broaden the law so that litigants could collect attorney fees from limited liability corporations, limited partnerships and other types of businesses. The bill excludes fee recoveries from religious organizations, charitable organizations and charitable trusts. The Legislature sent it to the governor on May 31.
Senate Bill 6 would create COVID-19 pandemic limits on liability for doctors, health care providers and first responders during pandemics. It would limit products liability actions related to pandemics. Other people and businesses couldn’t be sued for causing exposure to a pandemic as long as they were following certain safeguards. It was sent to the governor on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 232 would impact medical-malpractice attorneys’ work by providing a new mechanism to ask a court to determine whether a claim counts as a health care liability claim. Those claims must have expert reports filed within a certain time limit. Lawmakers sent it to the governor and he filed it without a signature, making the law effective Sept. 1.
Senate Joint Resolution 47 would change the qualifications in the Texas Constitution for an attorney to run to become a judge. The years of experience to become a district judge would jump from four to eight years under the resolution. Voters must approve it in November.
House Bill 3774 would create new courts in Texas counties where the population has grown enough to warrant a new court. Under the omnibus courts bill, the state would establish new district courts in Bell, Harris, Tarrant, Williamson, Denton, Hays, Cameron, McLennan, Smith, and Hidalgo counties. The bill was sent to the governor on Tuesday.
Civil court costs
Senate Bill 41 would restructure civil court costs and provide for more revenue for local courts to spend on court security, jury services and facility fees. The Legislature sent it to the governor on Tuesday.
Law against perpetuities
House Bill 654 would change Texas law about the rule of perpetuities. It says that a trust may exist for 300 year, or just 100 years if it ties up real property. Lawmakers sent it to the governor on May 20.
House Bill 2116 would change the law for the way construction contracts are written between governmental entities and architects or engineers. Currently, the government can make the architect or engineer take on a duty to defend if any dispute arises. Under the legislation, the government would have to rely on its own insurance policies for disputes to be worked out. The Legislature sent it to the governor on Monday.
House Bill 2237 would modernize Texas law regarding mechanic’s, contractor’s and materialmen’s liens. Lawmakers sent it to the governor on Monday.