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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Interesting Economic Research, Race, Poverty and American Tort Awards

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Another post on a great piece from Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok discusses his recent research with Eric Helland on Race, Poverty and American Tort Awards. His conclusion:

A 1% increase in black poverty rates, for example, can increase tort awards by 3-10 percent with a similar increase in Hispanic poverty rates. Careful forum shopping can easily raise awards by 50-100%.

This is hardly a ground-breaking revelation of course. When I was in Beaumont, TX a few years ago, the person I was with told me the house we were going to was on ‘lawyer’s row’ an upper-income street where most of the homes were owned by plaintiff’s attorneys. For the uninitiated, Beaumont is in East Texas, where juries are much more likely to be rural and poor, and has a well-earned reputation as being a ‘judicial hellhole’ for corporate defendants. (See Overlawyered, for instance)

The post concludes with some rather damning comments made by Anthony Buzbee, a plaintiff’s attorney, in reference to Starr County in Texas.

“That venue probably adds about seventy-five percent to the value of the case,” he said. “You’ve got an injured Hispanic client, you’ve got a completely Hispanic jury, and you’ve got an Hispanic judge. All right. That’s how it is.”

In other parts of Texas, Buzbee went on, a plaintiff may have the burden of showing “here’s what the company did wrong, all right? But when you’re in Starr County, traditionally, you need to just show that the guy was working, and he was hurt. And that’s the hurdle: Just prove that he wasn’t hurt at Wal-Mart, buying something on his off time, and traditionally, you win those cases.”

To the extent that forum-shopping results in an arbitrary award of damages for plaintiffs and undermines faith in the fairness of our courts, it is rightly to be discouraged and ameliorated. However, to an equal extent, isn’t this just judicial democracy? Aren’t we in danger of undermining the traditional role of juries when we restrict their ability reflect the social mores of the society in which they live? Not all juries are created equally. Perhaps this is just my federalist stripes showing, but I fail to see anything egregiously unjust in juries in Beaumont giving plaintiffs higher awards than I would with juries in River Oaks, the ultra-wealthy, largely conservative Republican neighborhood in Houston, giving lower awards.

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Category: Texas, Texans & the Law, torts

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