Calif. named worst 'judicial hellhole' by tort reform group

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Dec 17, 2013

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- California again is the nation's No. 1 "judicial hellhole," according to a report issued by the American Tort Reform Association Tuesday.

The state's civil courts ranked as the "most unfair in the nation," according to the tort reform group's 2013-14 report. Louisiana, New York City, West Virginia, Illinois' Madison and St. Clair counties and South Florida ranked second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

"California's personal injury lawyers control the state legislature in Sacramento, and plaintiff-friendly judges make it that much easier for them to target both deep-pocket corporations and mom-and-pop small businesses," ATRA President Tiger Joyce said in a statement Tuesday.

"If it isn't preposterous consumer class actions aimed at the food industry or questionable asbestos claims, it's the threat of disability-access lawsuits that force small business owners -- often minorities and recent immigrants -- to settle specious claims by serial plaintiffs who care more about getting paid than they do about making businesses more accessible.

"Such hyper-litigiousness contributes to California's high rate of unemployment and constant budget shortfalls."

Kim Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, said the report is not surprising.

California has been included in the ATRA report every year in some form since it was first issued in 2002, but last year was the first time it made its way to the top of the rankings.

"California is viewed as having the least fair judicial system in the entire country," Stone said in a statement. "Lawyers sue over minor technicalities, or sue the yogurt company on behalf of everyone who ever bought yogurt when 99.9 percent of the consumers were happy with their yogurt.

"Meritless cases like these clog our courts and keep the truly injured from getting their day in court."

Stone said the current system too often allows lawyers to make money even when nobody has been harmed, and even when the defendant has done nothing wrong because it is usually cheaper to reach a settlement than to fight in court.

"That's not the kind of justice system we want," she said.

Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, agreed.

"This report is just the latest in a series of studies that have documented how the state's poor litigation climate increases costs for businesses and hurts job creation in our state," he said in a statement Tuesday.

"California's unbalanced litigation climate is one of the reasons why other areas of the nation have recovered much faster from the Great Recession than our state. From absurd class actions to shakedown lawsuits against small business owners, the litigation climate in California hurts employers large and small.

"It's no wonder that California's unemployment rate remains significantly higher than the national average."

The report also called attention to 10 additional jurisdictions. ATRA said they "bear watching" due to their histories of abusive litigation or troubling developments.

They are: Cook County, Ill.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Newport News, Va.; New Hampshire; Clark County, Nev.; Jones County, Miss.; Spartanburg, S.C.; Atlantic County, N.J.

"The real 'whales' there (Clark County) are the high-rolling plaintiffs' lawyers who continue, with the help of a plainly biased judiciary, to fleece innocent defendants to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in connection with a Hepatitis C outbreak that resulted from the criminal mishandling and administration of sedatives by an endoscopy clinic physician and his staff," Joyce said.

"With her hiring of out-of-state contingency-fee lawyers, Nevada's attorney general also is contributing to the Silver State's growing reputation as a bad place to do business."

Joyce said "concerned observers" worry that Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto's pay-to-play relationships with outside counsel put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

However, the ATRA report does highlight some "good news" in its Points of Light section.

Included in the section are: rulings by the Colorado Supreme Court, Idaho Supreme Court, Illinois Supreme Court, Maryland Court of Appeals, New Jersey Supreme Court, Colorado Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

ATRA also pointed to various state legislatures for enacting "significant, positive civil justice reforms." Among them: Arizona, Montana, Texas and Utah.

"Colorado's highest court seeks to rein in the costly 'fishing expeditions' often undertaken by plaintiffs' lawyers during litigation's discovery process, and a Centennial State appeals court moved to protect consumers from lawsuit loan-sharks," Joyce said.

"Meanwhile, lawmakers in Arizona enacted a significant class-action reform, Montana placed a reasonable limit on appeal bonds, Texas dismissed long dormant asbestos and silica claims, and Utah protected property owners from abusive liability claims made by trespassers."

This year's report also praised West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for his new transparency policy in hiring outside counsel, saying it provides a "stark break" from the practices of predecessor Darrell McGraw.

The report's Special Feature section also highlights what ATRA calls "troubling attempts" by plaintiffs' lawyers to circumvent the federal Class Action Fairness Act by keeping massive, multi-state lawsuits in "judicial hellholes" instead of having them heard in neutral federal courts.

To read ATRA's detailed 60-page report, click here.

The annual "Judicial Hellholes" report compiles the most significant court rulings and legislative actions over the course of the year as documented in real-time online, ATRA explained.

The report also reflects feedback gathered from ATRA members and other firsthand sources.

The group said it also receives tips and additional information, which it then researches independently through publicly available court documents, judicial branch statistics, press accounts and various studies.

The "Judicial Hellholes" program considers only civil litigation; it does not reflect in any way on the criminal justice system.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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Civil Justice Association of California Colorado Supreme Court Idaho Supreme Court Illinois Supreme Court New Jersey Supreme Court

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