Lawmakers look at injured worker ruling
By KELLEY SHANNON
AUSTIN — Relatives of those killed in a 2005 BP plant explosion and other industrial accident victims urged the Legislature on Monday to undo a Texas Supreme Court ruling in a high-profile workplace injury case.
"If no one is held accountable, then nobody is safe," said Eva Rowe, who lost both parents in the blast at BP's Texas City refinery. "The people that this will affect are working people."
State Senate and House committees are hearing testimony about a Texas Supreme Court decision last year that an injured contract worker couldn't sue the worksite company for damages because he was covered by the company's workers' compensation policy.
Critics say the ruling wrongly expanded liability protection for businesses under the workers' comp law.
Some lawmakers and labor leaders say legislators didn't automatically extend such lawsuit immunity to plant owners — that it only applies to companies' direct employees who are covered by workers' comp insurance. The Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider the case.
Regardless of what the court does, accident victims and their families say the Legislature needs to address the matter. They contend some workers hurt in the BP explosion, which killed 15 people in March 2005, wouldn't have been able to sue if the court's ruling had been in place.
Some 4,000 lawsuits were filed after the BP refinery explosion. The majority have settled with the London-based company. The company has set aside $2.13 billion to settle lawsuits.
"If you walked a mile in all our shoes — please, please don't let this happen," Linda Hunnings, the widow of BP contract worker Jim Hunnings, said in an emotional news conference at the Texas Capitol.
Jose Herrera, a contract worker who was badly burned in a Citgo plant explosion and came to the Capitol scarred and in a wheelchair, also could be prevented from suing under the court's ruling, said his attorney, Arthur J. Gonzalez.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, questioned granting a no-fault status for a plant and said that it provides "nothing for the employee."
Leo Linbeck Jr., chairman and chief executive of the construction firm Linbeck Corp., warned against the Legislature trying to manage the way business is conducted.
"I think the Legislature is laboring with whether or not they really want a no-fault workers' comp system," Linbeck said after appearing before the committee. "If you want a no-fault system, then it ought to be truly no-fault."
Houston attorney John Eddie Williams, who has represented people hurt in refinery explosions along the Gulf Coast for years, urged lawmakers to clarify their position and protect injured workers, not unsafe companies.
"We must clear up this problem. The Legislature must make a decision. Do you want to grant immunity to these wrongdoers or do you want to hold them accountable?" he said.
Ralph Dean, whose wife was injured in the BP explosion and whose father-in-law was killed, urged lawmakers to think about blue-collar workers, not just the corporate bottom line.
"We're not talking about a smashed finger here. We're talking about 15 deaths," he said.
In other testimony, the Senate committee heard from business representatives and trial lawyers about how lawsuit limitation laws are working.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform released a study by economist Ray Perryman that says civil lawsuit limits imposed beginning in 1995 have resulted in a $112 billion increase in annual spending and 499,000 new jobs in Texas.
"People are now beginning to trust the law again," said Richard Weekley, chairman of Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
Nelson Roach, president-elect of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, disputed the Perryman report results. He questioned the methods used to arrive at the findings.