AUSTIN -- What started out as a very controversial measure regarding civil law reform received unanimous approval from the Senate on Tuesday following weeks of negotiation with interested parties.
CSHB 274, sponsored in the Senate by Senator Joan Huffman of Southside Place, would implement provisions intended to reduce frivolous lawsuits and move the civil process more quickly. The bill was passed out of the House on a party line vote, but changes made in the Senate found no opposition in the body. "This bill has been exhaustively negotiated," said Huffman.
When the bill was introduced in the House, it operated under a pure "loser pays" system; if you sue in court and lose, you would have to pay attorney's fees and court costs to the prevailing side. Critics of the bill raised concerns that this would unfairly advantage parties who could afford expensive legal teams to drag out the process, racking up costs and making it prohibitively costly to sue.
Senate changes called for establishing a pre-trial phase, where one party can make a motion to dismiss a lawsuit it feels frivolous. If a judge agrees, the loser would pay the court costs, which would be much smaller than costs associated with a full trial.
The bill would also encourage parties to settle before taking the case to trial. If a suing party rejects a pretrial settlement offer and takes the case to court, it would have to pay attorney fees and court costs if the jury awards 80 percent or less of the original settlement offer. Conversely, the sued party has to pay fees and costs if the jury awards more than 120 percent of the settlement offer.
Another provision in the bill would direct the Supreme Court to develop a system for expediting civil claims of less than $100,000.
This bill will likely head to a conference committee, where House and Senate members will debate the Senate provisions and try and come up with a consensus bill that both chambers can support. The unanimous vote on CSHB 274 by the Senate, however, shows that the bill as passed has strong support on one side of the Capitol.