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Commentary: Hailstorm lawsuit reform protects consumers

Austin American Statesman, April 7, 2017

By: Hazel Meaux

First we get hit with high-intensity storms that pummeled parts of our state this past week with large hail. Next, we get soaked by storm-chasing personal injury lawyers looking to line their pockets.

Texas is taking a pounding, and it’s time for the Texas Legislature to do their part to stop it. Since we can’t control the weather, let’s tackle abusive hailstorm lawsuits and enact smart reforms.

At Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, we have watched the threats and costs mount in recent years. From direct mail and billboards and solicitations at public events or door to door, plaintiffs are aggressively recruited.

In 2014, a study by the Rio Grande Valley Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse found that in the two years after significant hailstorms in Hidalgo County in 2012, nearly 6,000 lawsuits were filed. Forty percent of those suits were filed by just seven personal injury lawyers. Many of these lawsuits shows a near identical, cookie-cutter pattern in the hailstorm personal injury lawyers’ approach, claims and demands.

That trend is no longer limited to South Texas.

According to the Texas Department of Insurance, weather-related litigation jumped 1,400 percent statewide after 2011.

When you see growing numbers of lawsuits like this, there’s reason to worry that they’re burdening our courts, driving up consumer and business insurance costs and limiting or eliminating access to coverage for some Texans.

And there’s data that show the impact on consumers is already being felt. The Department of Insurance found that seven insurers have reduced, limited or stopped writing insurance policies because of hailstorm litigation, while 12 companies have hiked rates for homeowners’ policies as a direct result of lawsuits.

So, what’s the fix?

House Bill 1774 and Senate Bill 10 offer a reasonable solution to the skyrocketing number of hailstorm lawsuits being filed in Texas by putting an end to the gaming of the system by some personal injury lawyers.

Yet, we hear critics argue, as Chris Tomlinson did in his recent Houston Chronicle column, that the bills protect insurers, not consumers. Unfortunately, that’s off the mark, but it’s a popular refrain from those who truly stand to lose the most if hailstorm lawsuit reform passes: personal injury lawyers.

The same storm-chasing lawyers who stand to make more than $400 million in legal fees off these cases are the ones showing the strongest and loudest opposition to reform. It’s about fattening their wallets rather than helping a property owner get whole.

The proposed legislative fix protects property owners from all the bad actors, whether it’s an insurance company or a lawyer. Both SB 10 and HB 1774 ensure Texans maintain their ability to sue their insurer, while common-sense provisions would be put in place to allow for needed predictability in the system.

Every single one of the seven causes of action — reasons under existing law that a homeowner can sue — that are available to a property owner today will remain available after these bills pass. There is a clear path to the courthouse for those with legitimate disputes with their insurers.

What’s most promising about this effort to reform is that Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Greg Bonnen have worked tirelessly with all stakeholders to ensure the current legislation is a narrow, targeted bill that fixes a specific, major problem.

I’ve been on the front lines of lawsuit reform with many of my fellow Texans and small business owners. The same people who are opposed to hailstorm lawsuit reform today have been opposed to every major piece of reform that has been passed in the last 20 years.

We need reform. We can’t control the weather, but we can work to stop lawsuit abuse.