WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Florida, thanks to a string of liability-expanding decisions, has earned itself the top spot in the newest Judicial Hellhole” rankings, according to an annual report issued by the American Tort Reform Association Tuesday.

The state ranked as the “most unfair” in the nation in its handling of civil litigation, according to the tort reform group’s 2017-18 report.

Perennial hellhole California is ranked No. 2, followed by the City of St. Louis Circuit Court, New York City’s asbestos court and Philadelphia.

“This year, thanks to a state high court majority’s barely contained contempt for the policy-making authority of the legislative and executive branches of government, and a notoriously aggressive and sometimes lawless plaintiffs’ bar, Florida earns the ignominious No. 1 ranking among eight Judicial Hellholes, even as authorities have begun to crack down on some of the lawsuit industry’s most obviously fraudulent rackets,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce said in a statement.

According to the ATRA report, the Florida Supreme Court’s plaintiff-friendly majority this year shrunk from 5-2 to 4-3.

However, a “hushed discussion” between two majority justices recently caught by an open microphone suggests the majority is “as partisan as ever,” the tort reform group contends.

The ATRA report points to four medical liability cases, arguing the high court has undercut patient safety, protected lawyers’ fees, allowed higher damage awards and invalided a law intended to reduce litigation.

The report also takes issue with the personal injury bar’s practices, which, it claims, has tarnished the state’s reputation.

“Florida shows little inclination to make a much needed course correction,” the report states.

Right behind Florida is California, which has floated between the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in recent years.

According to the ATRA report, lawmakers, prosecutors and plaintiff-friendly judges in the state expand civil liability at the expense of businesses, jobseekers and those in need of affordable housing.

“The good news is the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed a California high court decision that we criticized in last year’s report,” Joyce noted. “Had it been allowed to stand, California’s courthouse doors would have been thrown open even wider to out-of-state plaintiffs suing out-of-state defendants over alleged out-of-state injuries.”

Some feared the state high court decision -- Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court -- would invite even more out-of-state plaintiffs to clog the state’s dockets further.

The City of St. Louis, considered a “magnet” for product liability lawsuits and consumer class actions, topped last year’s list.

But after some changes this past year, the court dropped two spots.

“The City of St. Louis Circuit Court, last year’s No. 1 Judicial Hellhole, drops to No. 3 this year by virtue of a change in gubernatorial leadership, a good start by state lawmakers on an agenda of much needed civil justice reforms and that same U.S. Supreme Court decision curbing forum shopping in California,” Joyce said.

“It should do the same in the ‘Show Me Your Lawsuits State.’”

If only such progress could have been made in New York City’s Asbestos Litigation court, often referred to as NYCAL, he said.

While the court continues to drop down ATRA’s annual list, the tort reform group contends it is still very much an area of concern.

“A much anticipated update to the court’s Case Management Order proved to be a great disappointment for defendants, as the plaintiff-favoring judge who wrote it was predictably rewarded with an appellate court appointment by a governor who acknowledges that trial lawyers are ‘the single most powerful political force’ in the state,” Joyce said.

The order, issued by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Peter Moulton in June after being in the works for nearly two years, holds, among other things, that punitive damages awards are no longer deferred for cases placed on the trial calendar after the CMO’s effective date.

The business community and legal reform groups are displeased with the CMO, arguing it will expose asbestos defendants to higher verdicts.

Philadelphia rounds out the top five after out-of-state mass tort filings and multimillion-dollar verdicts are once again surging.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has long been a national center for product liability litigation. The court’s Complex Litigation Center, or CLC, hosts a mass torts program that attracts drug, medical device and asbestos cases from across the county.

According to the ATRA report, the number of lawsuits targeting Risperdal now pending in the Philadelphia court tripled from the start of 2017 through November, from about 2,000 to 6,400. 

Coming in at No. 6 is New Jersey, followed by Illinois’ Madison County and Cook County and Louisiana at No. 7 and 8, respectively.

The ATRA report also calls attention to several additional jurisdictions that “bear watching” due to their histories of abusive litigation or “troubling developments.”

These jurisdictions may be moving closer to or further away from a designation as a Judicial Hellhole, the tort reform group noted.

On the Watch List: state courts in Georgia, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, along with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The report also includes a number of Dishonorable Mentions, which typically recognize poorly reasoned court decisions. This year’s include “singularly unsound” court decisions in Connecticut and Wisconsin, as well as three tort reform vetoes by Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton.

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

This year’s highlights include actions taken by attorneys general in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, cracking down on often fraudulent disability-access lawsuits that target small businesses. 

Several state and federal court decisions and verdicts also are applauded, as are 17 tort reforms enacted in 13 states in 2017.

The ATRA report also includes a special section, “Closer Look,” which examines the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdictional decisions in 2017 and their likely impact on forum-shopping, as well as trial lawyers’ growing influence on opioid litigation and the American Law Institute.

To read the full text of the 2017-18 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.

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

The group says 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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