The latest ranking of America's most unfair jurisdictions in which to be sued has been revealed in the American Tort Reform Foundation's Judicial Hellholes® 2008/2009 report. Read the full report (3 MB PDF) or start with the executive summary below.
Judicial Hellholes are places where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an inequitable manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits. In this seventh annual report, ATRF shines its brightest spotlight on seven areas of the country that have developed reputations for uneven justice.
West Virginia West Virginia reclaims the #1 ranking this year for its near perfect storm of anti-business rulings, massive lawsuits and cozy relationships between the personal injury bar, the state attorney general and some in the judiciary. The state's highest court has a history of plaintiff-biased decisions, paying damages to those who are not injured, allowing mass trials, permitting lawsuits outside the workers' compensation system, rejecting long-established legal principles, and welcoming plaintiffs' lawyers from other states to take advantage of its generous rulings. To make matters worse, West Virginia is one of only two states that do not guarantee a right to appeal a civil verdict, even if a multimillion-dollar award is clearly excessive under the law or the trial court violated proce- dural fairness by allowing a jury to decide punitive damages before it found a defendant legally responsible for a claim. There also may be no state with a closer alliance between the state attorney general and politically-connected personal injury lawyers. This alliance has wreaked havoc at the expense of civil justice.
South Florida South Florida maintains its reputation for legally excessive awards and plaintiff-biased rulings that make it a launching pad for class actions, dubious claims and novel legal theories creating new types of lawsuits. This year South Florida was home to a record-breaking award in an asbestos case. And though medical malpractice claims may be coming down off their peak, the area is still home to some of the largest such awards. Not surprisingly, its doctors pay among the highest insurance premiums in the nation. It is also a place where professional plaintiffs patrol small business sites for tech- nical violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hoping to gin up litigation. Broward County has recently seen more than its share of judicial misconduct allegations. So yet again, this hellhole has many problems.
Cook County, Illinois Cook County, Illinois, with its reputation for hostility toward corporate defendants, has long been known as a receptive host for lawsuits. In past years, the Chicago area experienced a surge in asbestos claims, embraced class action lawsuits and became known for excessive awards. Cook County still hosts significantly more than its proportional share of lawsuits in the state, as its courts permit "forum shopping" whereby lawyers from other parts of the state or country can bring lawsuits that have little or no connection to Cook County. It was also a Cook County court that threw out a state law aimed at solving medical liability problems that had set physicians fleeing the state. At press time, the Illinois Supreme Court was still considering the appeal.
Atlantic County, New Jersey Atlantic County, New Jersey, and the state known as the "nation's medicine cabinet," has become the destination of choice for those suing the pharmaceutical industry. Believe it or not, some of these cases are brought on behalf of people who do not even claim to have been harmed by taking a drug. Instead, lawyers are seeking massive payouts for anyone who merely purchased a drug. Other areas of the state have problems, too, such as particularly large personal injury awards in Monmouth County and an astounding appellate court ruling in a Cape May case holding restaurant and bar owners responsible for accidents caused by drunken patrons, even if those patrons didn't consume alcohol while at their estab- lishments. Such decisions are certainly bad for small businesses, but lawyers are doing all right: An advisory committee to the New Jersey Supreme Court found that a contingency fee lawyer may in some cases take as much as half of his or her client's recovery.
Montgomery & Macon Counties in Alabama Montgomery & Macon Counties in Alabama this year moved up from their recent Watch List rankings thanks to legally excessive verdicts, controversial alliances among government officials and personal injury lawyers, and suspect court rulings. Montgomery County courts returned two of the most excessive verdicts against pharmaceutical companies in the country totaling almost a quarter-billion dollars. Alabama's attorney general outsourced lawsuits to trial lawyers who may be motivated more by their personal interests than by the public interest. Meanwhile, in nearby Macon County, two judges gave new meaning to the phrase "jackpot justice" in awarding a plaintiff 1,000 times the maximum payout of a gaming park's malfunctioning slot machine.
Los Angeles County, California Los Angeles County, California, has returned to the ranks of Judicial Hellholes, in part, for allowing "shakedown" lawsuits brought primarily against small businesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for otherwise hosting astonishingly excessive verdicts. The county long known as "the bank" has remained one of the most desirable places in the nation to file lawsuits. Los Angeles this year produced a startling number of large asbestos awards. And in one recent string of lawsuits stemming from a practical joke, just about everyone walked away with a payment.
Clark County, Nevada Clark County, Nevada, lawyers recognize that they have a problem - and it isn't gambling or drinking. According to one recent allegation by the FBI in Las Vegas, plaintiffs' attorneys try to game the system in favor of their clients by contributing politically to the judges before whom they appear. Defense lawyers feel the scales of justice are tipped against them, as shown by one instance in which a court ordered a new trial when a defense lawyer had the audacity to mention frivolous lawsuits and individual responsibility in his closing argument. Meanwhile, courts do not appear to show the same concern when a personal injury lawyer exhorts jurors to "send a message" by returning a huge verdict. Many Clark County lawyers are also looking for a way to exceed a voter-passed limit on damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases, which would cause more doctors to flee the state.
Beyond the Judicial Hellholes, this report calls attention to several additional jurisdictions that also bear watching for suspicious or negative developments in litigation, histories of abuse, or laudable efforts to improve themselves. Watch List jurisdictions fall on the cusp - they may fall into the Hellholes abyss or rise to the promise of Equal Justice Under Law.
Rio Grande Valley & Gulf Coast of Texas
Madison County, Illinois
St. Louis (the City of), and St. Louis & Jackson counties, Missouri