Bills have been filed in the Texas legislature to create hike and bike trails in utility easements in Houston. Under this bill, the utility companies would donate their easement land to the city of Houston for this use in exchange for immunity from any and all personal injuries. But let’s be clear: The legislature is not talking about immunity from liability from injuries and death caused by the other people using the hike and bike trails.
Why wouldn’t the legislature be concerned about someone being injured or killed in a utility easement by someone other than another user of the easement, you might ask? The answer is found in the easement itself. The high-voltage lines and equipment in these easements are dangerous, and those dangers include but are not limited to adverse health effects from their electromagnetic fields. There has been a lot of discussion in the scientific and medical communities about whether there is an association between these electromagnetic fields and cancer. Whether the risk is established or not, and even if it is inconclusive, why would we want to expose innocent victims to that risk while giving immunity to the power/utility companies who built and maintain those high-voltage lines? The city would build the hike and bike trails directly under these electromagnetic fields, and if it turned out that electromagnetic fields can cause cancer and the utility companies have immunity, who will compensate the innocent victims? What about the innocent men, women and children?
Tort immunity is handed out in the Texas legislature like campaign contributions, free meals, liquor and cigars. The Texas legislature’s liberally handing out immunity is the new tort reform. We now have qualified, limited or full immunity for drug manufacturers for their vaccines, the state and its cities, charitable volunteers, educators and school districts, first responders, emergency rooms, providers of private land for public recreational use, animal control agencies, food donors, transplants and transfusions, fire fighters and police, persons assisting in hazardous or dangerous situations, the use of deadly force in self defense, farm animal activities or livestock shows, donations of medical devices, volunteer health care practitioners who conduct physicals or medical screenings to determine one’s physical health and fitness to participate in a school-sponsored extracurricular or sporting activity, volunteer audiologists or speech-language pathologists, space flight activities, and rendering health care and treatment to the indigent, just to name a few.
Each and every Legislative Session the legislature is lobbied hard by special interest groups for immunity from liability, and when given, accountability only comes when the innocent victim can prove the protected wrongdoer’s act was intentional.
This 83rd Legislative Session is no different. Houston is attempting to obtain immunity for the utility companies who allow the city to build hike and bike trails in their easements, directly under their high voltage lines. That would mean immunity for the power/utility companies who built and maintain those high-voltage lines in the easement for any injury or death caused by electrocution, falling objects, a dangerous condition on the land, or by the users of the easement.
The Texas legislature needs to think about its residents and visitors instead of special interests, for a change. Immunity should rarely not freely – be handed out. Legislators needs to protect their constituents who may well become the innocent and unsuspecting victims of their back-hallway winks, nods and handshakes with the special interests lobby. Whether it’s tort immunity or damages caps, all tort reform hurts innocent victims and only benefits special interests. That is why the Texas Trial Lawyers have opposed these bills in past Legislative Sessions and now; the Texas Trial Lawyers are the only ones in Austin protecting every Texans’ rights to hold wrongdoers accountable.