Bullseye placed on Philly courts, group says

John O'Brien Dec. 17, 2010, 1:44pm


PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) - According to a major tort reform group, Philadelphia is the biggest "judicial hellhole" in the United States. Will it also become the biggest target for plaintiffs lawyers?

That's the fear expressed by the American Tort Reform Association in its most recent edition of the annual Judicial Hellholes report, released Tuesday. The group worries that stances taken by two of the city's most powerful judges are inviting plaintiffs attorneys.

Philadelphia is home to the Complex Litigation Center, which was founded by Judge Sandra Mazer Moss in the early 1990s and includes the mass torts program. It was created to streamline complicated cases (asbestos litigation, for example) and put them on two-year trial tracks.

A quick resolution can be an attractive selling point to plaintiffs lawyers working on contingency fees.

"I think Judge Moss has done an outstanding job at handling cases at a clip that surpasses every other court in the nation," said Lee Balefsky, the head of the mass torts department at Philadelphia's Kline & Specter.

"It's a program worth following. It's been a model for other courts around the country."

ATRA says the intentions of Moss and Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Dembe are to lay out a welcome mat for plaintiffs lawyers.

Under state law, a lawsuit may be filed in Philadelphia if one of the defendants has its principal place of business in Philadelphia County.

If a lawyer wants his or her client's lawsuit filed in Philadelphia, then, he or she only needs to find the right defendant -- like Philadelphia's Melrath Gasket. That company was found by Moss to have defied the discovery process and was unable to use any defense in a February case that led to a $7 million award.

"A good lawyer is going to look for a place to file his case where his client can get fair and efficient justice and a trial as quickly as possible," Balefsky said.

"I don't think it's forum-shopping at all. It's a lawyer doing what's best for his client."

Balefsky also said he doesn't hear of "too many" defendants that complain about the mass torts program -- "It's the most efficient they've seen, and they get a fair shake."

CLC executive director Stanley Thompson is proud of his work in moving cases along. A trophy that commemorates the elimination of the 7,500-lawsuit asbestos backlog sits in the CLC's office.

Moving lawsuits along, he conceded, can have a side effect. Forum-shopping can be an "ancillary effect," he said.

"That's not the intended purpose," he said. "The purpose is to make sure any litigant who can rightly file here can get a timely trial.

"Does it invite litigation from people who wouldn't normally file here? Maybe. But that's not the intended purpose."

Meanwhile, ATRA worries that lawsuits with no connection to Philadelphia will be filed there because of Moss and Dembe.

"Judges are not in the business of drumming up lawsuits," ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney said. "They are there to judiciously and fairly preside over cases that come before them through no effort of their own.

"If a plaintiff is not from the county, if the defendant is not from the county, if the alleged injury did not take place in the county, then why in the world is the case being heard in the county at the expense of taxpayers?"

The mass torts program has nearly 5,000 active cases in it. Lawsuits over hormone replacement theory, Yaz and asbestos are the most abundant. The Yaz program is the fastest-growing, increasing from 18 lawsuits to 986 in one year.

The ATRA report says the CLC is looking for more lawsuits since all but three of the Phen-Fen cases, which numbered 11,000 in 2005, have been resolved.

According to the hellholes report, in March 2009, Dembe told the Legal Intelligencer that the court's budgetary problems could be helped by making the CLC a more attractive destination for lawsuits "so we're taking away business from other courts."

A look at the 2011 trial schedule for asbestos cases shows it is more than just local firms occupying the program's docket.

McKinney said it is one thing to have plaintiffs lawyers gloat about jurisdictions -- like disgraced attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs' comments about "magic jurisdictions" in Mississippi -- but it is another to have that kind of talk come from a judge.

"Whatever trial lawyers want to talk about amongst themselves, hey, have at it," he said. "When judges do it, it's mind-blowing."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

More News