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Sunday, April 28, 2002

Republican Abbott criticized by plaintiffs' lawyers

HOUSTON (AP) - Republican attorney general nominee Greg Abbott is facing criticism from plaintiffs' lawyers for advocating tort reform, or limiting lawsuits, after he received a large settlement years ago following an accident that cost him the use of his legs.

Don Riddle, the Houston lawyer who helped negotiate Abbott's settlement after the 1984 accident, said it's "terribly inconsistent" for Abbott to chide Democratic opponent Kirk Watson for being a personal injury trial lawyer.

"I take great offense at that, particularly from somebody who has taken advantage of our legal reparations system," Riddle told the Houston Chronicle for its Saturday editions.

Abbott has characterized Watson, a former Austin mayor, as a trial lawyer who has made millions suing doctors, hospitals and business owners.

On his campaign Web site, Abbott says his opinions as a Supreme Court justice "helped cement tort reform."

"What so offends me is how hypocritical it is for him to enjoy this tax-free income while bragging about trying to change laws that will prevent others from making a similar recovery," said Tommy Fibich, a plaintiffs' lawyer from Houston.

Abbott was jogging in the posh Houston neighborhood of River Oaks in July 1984 when a 75-foot oak tree broke at its base and struck Abbott in the back. The resulting injuries left Abbott partially paralyzed, and he now uses a wheelchair.

Abbott, then 24, had recently completed law school and was uninsured. He sued the homeowner and a tree company that had inspected the oak.

"Following the accident, information surfaced that the owner of the tree and the arborist who took care of the tree knew that it had been severely weakened by a recent storm and could soon topple," Abbott said in a statement Friday. "In an out-of-court settlement, an agreement was reached that would compensate me for my current and future medical bills and included no punitive damages."

Abbott and Riddle won't disclose the amount of the settlement, but Riddle allowed that Abbott was "compensated for a whole lot more than his past and future bills."

Abbott said in his statement that the lawsuit is not an issue in the attorney general's race.

"I firmly believe that we should eliminate abuses in our civil justice system while at the same time protecting the individual's right to bring legitimate lawsuits forward," Abbott said.

Through a spokesman, Watson said Friday he had no comment on Abbott's lawsuit.

"My work has allowed me to help many people when they were at their most vulnerable, such as representing, for free, cancer patients who were denied health insurance coverage or treatment that they rightfully deserved," Watson said.

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