Febe Zepeda, guest columnist: Frivolous lawsuits strike fear in Texas, America

Halloween is filled with equal parts horror and fun. But it doesn’t take a trip to the local haunted house to stumble upon some truly outrageous and frightening situations. All it takes is a visit to the courthouse or the office of a local personal injury lawyer to see something that scares the daylights out of business owners: lawsuit abuse.

Just give a quick search of the web, and you’ll identify plenty of frightful Halloween lawsuits. Consider a few examples of horrific claims.

Cotton balls and a hot glue gun do not always make for Halloween fun as a husband and wife found out when posing as Little Bo Peep and her sheep. The husband’s sheep costume was covered in cotton batting, which caught on fire when he lit a cigarette. The couple sued the manufacturer, arguing that while the company warned that the cotton balls were flammable, they did not say how flammable they were and that such a warning would have prevented the incident. The appeals court didn’t buy the argument either.

Six Flags’ Great America theme park found itself sued last year by a father whose daughter was bruised and scraped after taking a fall while running from a costumed park employee taking part in the Halloween-themed Fright Night. The lawsuit alleges negligence in encouraging employees to chase patrons given the potential tripping hazards, and the family sought $30,000 in this ghoulish suit.

Beyond the chills of Halloween-based lawsuits, there are truly nutty ones, too. One suit filed in U.S. Federal Court in Brownsville this year involves a woman seeking more than $1 million after she allegedly fell as a result of peanut shells on the floor of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Harlingen. The restaurant chain is known for providing peanuts to their patrons and encouraging shells to be discarded on the tables and floor.

You might have a good laugh, or even a riotous scream, over these sorts of stories, but there’s one thing to keep in mind: these lawsuits — and others like them — are fact, not fiction. And, sadly, it’s frivolous lawsuits like these that happen year-round that are costing small business owners and consumers dearly. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform estimates that more than one-third of small-business owners have been sued.

When our courts are used for greed, not justice, everyone pays a price. It threatens the livelihood of small businesses, curbs job creation and diminishes investments as businesses must instead shift resources to protect or defend against frivolous claims.

Before common-sense reforms were passed in Texas, a proliferation of lawsuits was hurting our state. Many community doctors were driven out of Texas, out-of-state lawsuits clogged our courts and small-business owners operated in fear of the one lawsuit that could put them out of business and their employees out of a job.

But smart-minded reforms like Proposition 12 — the landmark medical malpractice lawsuit reform law that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year — helped bring sanity and balance to our courts system. In Texas, we’ve gone from being tagged as a “judicial hellhole” to a beacon and model that demonstrates reform works.

But in spite of great progress on legal reforms here in Texas, abuses of our civil courts remain a grave concern. We still see outrageous lawsuits and outlandish verdicts. We still have a problem to solve, and solving that problem is dependent on each of us.

The cost and consequence of lawsuit abuse impacts everyone. When we all remain vigilant and work to draw attention to these abuses of our civil courts system, we can help chase these Halloween-like horrors away and ensure that we enjoy access to our courts for justice — not boos, bumps in the night, nutty claims or simple greed.