Dick Trabulsi: The TT Interview
The president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform on why the group spends spend so much money on state elections, what it still wants from the Legislature, what he thinks the trial lawyers on the other side are after and what's wrong with the Democrats these days.
Houston businessman Richard "Dick" Trabulsi Jr. has been involved with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the leading tort reform advocacy group, since its formation in the mid-1990s and is currently its president and the chairman of its affiliated political action committee. TLR is not only one of the biggest political players in the state but one of the most successful, with friendly governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry and mostly agreeable Legislatures during its tenure in Texas politics.
Trabulsi sat down with the Tribune last week. An edited transcript and video of the interview follows.
TT: What did TLR set out to do in this election cycle, and did you expect 22 Republican pickups?
Trabulsi: No. We did not expect a pickup of 22 seats. What we set out to do was expand the pro-business, pro-tort-reform majority in the House. We felt that had narrowed in the last couple of election cycles, and we wanted to get back to a working majority on our issues.
TT: You're not talking about Republicans and Democrats.
Trabulsi: No. I'm talking about a majority on our issues. For example, in the House last session, there was a vote on something called the Entergy bill, which was a bill to reverse a decision on the Texas Supreme Court which we thought was correctly decided, and established good policy as well. [On a test vote], we found that there were about eight Democrats and about eight Republicans who did not follow predictable courses. Eight Democrats help the business community on that bill, and about eight Republicans voted with the trial lawyers on that bill.
TT: Does the increase in the House mean you've increased your margins by that amount, more or less?
Trabulsi: We believe there is a very comfortable majority of people in the House who philosophically view the civil justice system as TLR and our business allies do.
TT: In 1994, you came in and had some successes. You've had successes since. What do you still want?
Trabulsi: We want eternal vigilance. There are new abuses that arise.
TT: You're working on your agenda now?
Trabulsi: We are working on that now. The governor is on record as wanting to do some things. As you said, Gov. Bush made tort reform part of his 1994 campaign. Gov. Perry has said he wants to expedite the prosecution of smaller claims so that defendants can't game the system to where they intimidate somebody with a $75,000 claim from prosecuting a lawsuit all the way to conclusion. He has been informed that the federal rules allow a motion to dismiss practice that works very well in federal courts — that allow a defendant to get a non-meritorious lawsuit dismissed very early in the process, before either side spends a lot of time and money. So those sorts of things are still worth doing in Texas.
TT: What do you think your foes would like to do? What's most at peril?
Trabulsi: I would not describe anything today as being at peril. I think there are things that the trial bar is especially interested in reversing. The omnibus tort reform bill of 2003, for example, does not allow damages to for medical bills except those that have been paid or owing. There's a lagniappe between what is actually paid and owed and what is billed. The plaintiff's lawyers want to be able to hold a defendant liable to pay that full medical bill even though only part of it is actually paid or owing. They want to reverse that.
There are a couple of Supreme Court decisions they would like to reverse. For example, the Entergy decision, which basically allows a situation where a comprehensive workers' comp program can be applied to an entire worksite, and the owner, acting as a general contractor, can get tort immunity, just as a general contractor would. They want to reverse that decision. They want to undermine the Borg-Warner decision, which establishes toxic tort causation in asbestos-related litigation. They want to roll that back. They don't like proportionate responsibility. They would prefer that every defendant be jointly and severally liable for all damages.
Basically, they would like to roll back all tort reform, as near as we can tell.
TT: "Loser pays" was in your first set of proposals in 1994 and hasn't passed. Could you talk a little about that?
Trabulsi: We have a volunteer speakers' corps that speaks all over the state. Invariably, there's someone in the audience would make a statement or ask a question about loser pays: "Wouldn't that take care of all non-meritorious lawsuits?" Why should a defendant who prevails be out all the expenses? The governor has shown interest in loser pays — he has talked about that in his nationwide tour related to his book. We're studying it and hope to see a proposal emerge during the session.
TT: TLR has become one of the most important funders for conservatives in politics. The trial lawyers have been giants on the other side. It's a little of a Battle of the Titans kind of thing. How do you see your role in electoral politics?
Trabulsi: Well, in a representative democracy, policy and politics intertwine. If you're interested in policy, you have to play in politics. They cross-current each other. For example, President Obama has a policy of national health care. That policy has electoral consequences, as has been evident in this cycle. The politics that have happened in reaction to that policy has influenced how President Obama is acting today. Thus, the tax compromise.
We are a policy group, but to impact policy in our free society, we have to engage in politics. We engage in it vigorously, we engage in it consistently and we have spent a lot of money. This election cycle, TLR PAC has spent about $6 million on state races. On the other hand, one trial lawyer, Steve Mostyn, has spent more than that — probably in the neighborhood of $8.5 or $9 million. The TLR PAC contributions come from the entire broad spectrum of Texas society, whereas, unfortunately, the Texas Democratic Party today finds itself almost entirely funded by just one narrow segment of our society. It would be as if Republicans were funded only by 10 refiners or 10 oil and gas exploration executives. You would notice that, if that happened to the Republicans. Well, it has happened to the Democratic Party. Only trial lawyers are funding.
TT: The Democrats used to have business support. You came up as a Democrat. How do they get business back?
Trabulsi: There's an adage in the economy that bad money drives out good. It's not only a situation in which the plaintiff lawyers are the sole funders of Democrats, because that's not even true. It's not the broad plaintiff's bar. If you look at who is funding the Democratic Party, the Democratic Trust, the PACs that support Democrats, it's about eight or nine law firms that engage mostly in mass tort litigation. So it's even a narrow segment of the plaintiff's bar itself. As long as those few funders of Democrats expect Democrats to toe the line on issues that are important to the pocketbooks of those few trial lawyers, Democrats are going to be bound and gagged, basically, and they're not going to be able to be pro-business.
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