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How much protection from liability do they need?

State Impact asks a good question.

The electricity industry is among the biggest of the big spenders on lobbying the Texas legislature. So when bills are introduced giving the industry extraordinary protection from law suits, you can bet somebody’s going to cry foul.

“It’s a very unusual bill,” says Andrew Wheat at Texans for Public Justice, a corporate watchdog group in Austin.

Wheat’s talking about HB 404, introduced by a Republican representative from Houston, Sarah Davis. The bill is almost identical to HB 258 introduced by fellow Republican from Houston, Jim Murphy.

Both lawmakers say their bills are to allow the construction of hike and bike trails in Harris County on utility-owned rights-of-way, those big ribbons of green that cut across cities. Though primarily for the tall transmission line towers, the rights-of-way would make perfect places to build trails. (Houston voters recently approved $166 million in bonds to fund new trails.)

The owner of such rights-of-way in the Houston area is CenterPoint Energy. It has refused to allow the trails. Why? In an email to StateImpact, a CenterPoint media liaison said it would permit trails “if — and only if — the Texas Legislature provides additional liability protection to CenterPoint from people entering its rights of way.”

What has resulted, though, are bills that would give what lawyers say is almost blanket immunity to CenterPoint Energy should someone get hurt on company property while using it for recreation, even if CenterPoint was “grossly negligent.”

At the request of StateImpact, Richard Alderman, the associate dean of the University of Texas Law Center, took a look at the proposed legislation.

“It’s extremely broad and offers almost unlimited protection from liability beyond what any other entity doing the exact same thing under the exact same circumstances would have,” said Alderman.

He questioned why a new law was even necessary since Texas already has a “recreational use statute” which he says provides substantial protection for property owners when their land is used by others for things like hunting, hiking or biking.

“Frankly, under the recreational liability statute, I doubt there are very many law suits based on somebody who has a hike and bike trail,” said Alderman.

This came up in the 2011 session, but the bill filed by Rep. Davis didn’t go anywhere. I’d certainly like to see these trails built, but I don’t see why CenterPoint needs any special protection. As the story notes, trails like what would be built here already exist on utility-owned rights of way elsewhere. If CenterPoint already has a significant level of protection from liability, and if Oncor in Dallas didn’t need a law written for them to let its right of way be used for this purpose, then why are we even having this discussion? Perhaps what we really need is a little pressure on CenterPoint to drop the unreasonable demands, not to accommodate them. Via Swamplot.

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3 Comments

  1. michael skelly says:

    By way of update, it looks like a ompromise will be reached among the trial lawyers, the City, and Centerpoint, If those three parties can agree, and the path is cleared for more exercise facilities, what’s not to like? Senators Rodney Ellis and Dan Patrick are working this together.

  2. [...] here for the background. I’m not a lawyer, but comparing the text of the original bills that were [...]

  3. [...] bill in question is HB200; see here and here for the background. The main question had been the amount of liability that CenterPoint [...]

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