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ATRA

The American Tort Reform Association is out with its annual ranking of the jurisdictions where it thinks civil defendants are farthest from being assured a fair trial, and they are:

  1. West Virginia
  2. South Florida
  3. Cook County, Ill.
  4. Atlantic County, NJ
  5. Montgomery and Macon Counties, Ala.
  6. Los Angeles County, CA
  7. Clark County (Las Vegas), Nev.

The list reflects the views of big-company managers and lawyers as to tort lawsuits; a poll of, say, doctors might result in different nominations (Brooklyn, Bronx, Long Island*, Philadelphia) and one of class-action or patent-infringement defendants would likely produce yet other lists.

ATRA has a supplementary “Watch List”, nicknamed by some of us “Heckholes”, of toasty but not quite infernal jurisdictions, on which it places the Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast of Texas, Madison County, Ill., Baltimore, Md., and St. Louis city and county and Jackson County, Mo. It also offers side essays on notable scandals among high-rolling lawyers, trial lawyer-AG alliances, and pro-plaintiff’s-bar lobbying efforts.

Some coverage of the report: Pero, ShopFloor (with this and this on AG alliances), Ambrogi, Genova, CalBizLit (“We’re Number 6! We’re Number 6!), TortsProf, Miller (Baltimore), and Turkewitz (cross-posted from Point of Law; also note this recent post).

* Commenter VMS makes a case that Long Island does not belong on such a list.

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Overly eager salmonella-chasing attorneys might risk coming across as, well, bad actors (ATRA press release, Jun. 11). More: Jane Genova takes a different view.

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Tort Deform

by Ted Frank on April 24, 2008

Tort Deform is the effort of trial lawyers to undo successful civil justice reforms, even naming a blog after the concept. ATRA has a new report out, “Defrocking Tort Deform,” listing some of the pending state legislation on the issue. Related: my April Liability Outlook on revivers and retroactive lawsuits.

New at Point of Law

by Walter Olson on April 23, 2008

Carter Wood has been doing great things lately with the National Association of Manufacturers’ Shop Floor blog, which often treats legal reform topics. Since Monday he’s also been posting up a storm guestblogging at Point of Law. Topics include: ATLA/AAJ’s juvenile pre-nose-thumbing at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2008 Lawsuit Climate Report (which, like similar studies from ATRA and Pacific Research Institute, tries to pick best and worst state legal environments); the employment-litigation-expanding Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (more); some thoughts on journalistic shield laws; and sundry reports from the Geoffrey Fieger trial, Florida politics, and Texas Supreme Court-watching.

Judicial Hellholes 2007

by Ted Frank on December 20, 2007

ATRA’s remarkably successful annual Judicial Hellholes report highlighting the high and low points of several jurisdictions’ legal systems is out. (PDF) Regular readers will recognize many of the stories and jurisdictions (and an op-ed I wrote even gets a shout-out), but the report is a handy summary of the year in tort reform and lawsuit abuse. Lots of news coverage (AP/Fool.com; National Law Journal; the Examiner; others) and blog coverage (Lattman; Bader; Torts Prof; NAM; NAF; Murnane; Pharmalot).

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November 13 roundup

by Walter Olson on November 13, 2007

  • Ethical questions for Vioxx lawyers [WSJ law blog] And who’s going to make what? [same; more from Ted at PoL]
  • American lawyers shouldn’t get all self-congratulatory about the courage shown by their Pakistani counterparts [Giacalone; more]
  • Just another of those harmless questionnaires from school, this time about kindergartners’ at-home computer use. Or maybe there’s more to it [Nicole Black]
  • Probe of personal injury “runners” bribing Gotham hospital staff to chase business nets another conviction, this one of a lawyer who stole $148,000 from clients [NYLJ; earlier]
  • Facebook sometimes sends text messages to obsolete cellphone numbers relinquished by its users, so let’s sue it [IndyStar]
  • Series on defensive medicine at docblog White Coat Rants [first, second, third]
  • Arm broken by bully, student wins $4 million verdict against Tampa private school; bully himself not sued [St. Petersburg Times]
  • Washington, D.C. reportedly doing away with right to contest a traffic parking ticket in person [The Newspaper, on "the politics of driving"]
  • “Walking headline factory” Scruggs to be arraigned November 20 [Rossmiller]
  • More on whether government’s refusal to alter paper currency discriminates against the blind [Waldeck, ConcurOp via Bader; earlier]
  • Eric Turkewitz hosts a truly marathon Blawg Review #134 [NY Pers Inj Law Blog]

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The Associated Press and WSJ Law Blog cover Tuesday’s event, which was co-sponsored by ATRA and the Chamber. Raised so far: more than $64,000. Earlier coverage of the Roy Pearson pants case here (cross-posted from Point of Law).

Why have some of the trial bar’s heaviest hitters in asbestos litigation infested Delaware – firms like including Simmons Cooper, Baron and Budd, and the Lanier law firm?

Why did the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) place Delaware – which has always had a business-friendly reputation – on its “watch list” in the 2005 and 2006 editions of its “Judicial Hellholes” report?

One thing’s for sure – the trial bar’s legal talent isn’t circling Delaware because they love the state’s beautiful beaches.

The problem arises from a series of Delaware Supreme Court decisions that gave trial lawyers the green light to file hundreds of toxic tort cases. Out-of-state law firms are now busy turning Delaware into Ground Zero of the asbestos-litigation morass, but the overwhelming majority of plaintiffs have no connection to Delaware whatsoever. Approximately 80% of the plaintiffs in asbestos cases have never set foot in Delaware.

The numbers are startling. According to ATRA, in the year following May 2004 only 61 asbestos claims were filed in Delaware. But over the next 16 months, 272 asbestos cases were filed – a 345% increase. That number has now increased to 525 asbestos cases filed since May 1, 2005.

Due to this flood of lawsuits, the Delaware Superior Court has scheduled trials in as many as 85 cases to begin on a single day. The Court has also ordered defendants to try multiple cases in multiple courtrooms at the same time.

There are other warning signs. Delaware allows joint and several liability and has no limits on punitive damages. And newly-elected Attorney General Beau Biden is a former plaintiff’s asbestos lawyer.

Other states – such as Texas and Mississippi – have countered the flood of out-of-state lawsuits by enacting venue reforms – a measure that could help prevent the trial bar from turning Delaware into a “judicial hellhole.”

Steve Hantler

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Given the economic costs imposed by today’s legal system (a staggering $865 billion per year according to one recent estimate), it’s surprising more companies don’t take into account a state’s liability climate when making critical decisions like where to open a new plant or invest in existing facilities.

A new report could help change that.

Risky Business: The Annual Boardroom Guide to Litigation in the 50 States provides the first ever ranking of state legal environments that combines economic science, real world corporate experience and input from state legal reform experts – people with the most current intelligence from the front lines.

It builds on a few landmark studies, including the American Tort Reform Association’s “Judicial Hellholes,” the Pacific Research Institute’s U.S. Tort Liability Index, and the Institute for Legal Reform/Harris Interactive survey.

So where are the soundest states – and where is the swampland?

Nebraska and Virginia top the list with the best legal climates. What do they have in common? Reasonable limits on punitive damages, a “rule of law” majority on the state Supreme Court, and Attorneys General who specialize in law enforcement, not grabbing the spotlight at the expense of businesses.

In stark contrast, West Virginia, Rhode Island and Florida round out the bottom of the list. All have activist Supreme Court majorities who consistently rule in favor of trial lawyers. West Virginia has a governor who supports legal reform – a reminder that having a pro-reform governor does not necessarily translate into a sound legal environment.

To see the full list go here.

Steve Hantler

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A judge has ruled in favor of the defendant Chung family in the mishandled-dry-cleaning case, and awarded them (relatively minor) court costs. Pearson is expected to appeal; the Chungs’ lawyer says the family expects to ask eventually that he also be made to pay their attorney fees, but D.C. law sets the bar for such a request relatively high, so it’s by no means something they can count on. Coverage: Washington Post and its Marc Fisher and OFF/beat blogs, more. Earlier: here and here.

More: And here’s word of a fundraiser for the Chungs’ legal defense, next month in D.C., sponsored by the Chamber and ATRA.

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(Earlier.) Commenter Becky points us to this Sherman Joyce letter in the Examiner, to which we have added hyperlinks:

Dear Judge Butler and Commissioners Rigsby, Levine and Wilner:

On behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, which works to combat lawsuit abuse, I urge you to carefully reconsider the reappointment of Administrative Law Judge Roy Pearson Jr. to a 10-year term, scheduled to commence in three days on May 2.

As you are almost surely aware by now, thanks to extensive local and national media coverage, Judge Pearson has chosen to exploit the District’s well-intentioned but loosely worded Consumer Protection and Procedures Act in suing a family-owned D.C. dry cleaner for more than $65 million — over a lost pair of suit pants.

Though the pants have long since been found and made available to him, Judge Pearson has stubbornly continued to waste precious Superior Court resources in a clearly misguided effort to extort a hardworking family that provides a service to its community and tax revenue to the District government.

In a letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post, former National Labors Relations Board chief administrative law judge Melvin Welles urged “any bar to which Mr. Pearson belongs to immediately disbar him and the District to remove him from his position as an administrative law judge.”

To those of us who carefully study the litigation industry’s growing abuse of consumer protection laws around the country (see ATRA general counsel Victor Schwartz’s recent article from Executive Counsel magazine, “Consumer Protection Acts Are a Springboard for Lawsuit Abuse,” enclosed) and to everyday D.C. taxpayers who collectively provide Pearson with a considerable salary, his persistence in this lawsuit raises serious question about his capacity to serve the city as a “fair, impartial, effective, and efficient” judge, as required by the Office of Administrative Hearings Establishment Act.

If Pearson goes ahead with his lawsuit, any party who comes before him in future administrative hearings could understandably lack confidence in his judgment and judicial temperament. Furthermore, this case will become fodder for late-night comics, various members of Congress and other assorted critics of D.C. government if this case, scheduled for trial June 11, remains in the headlines.

Judicial temperament is a critical characteristic of an outstanding jurist. Any individual who chooses to pursue a case such as Pearson’s, at a minimum, calls into question his or her’s. As you consider his reappointment, we strongly urge you to examine closely his judicial temperament and decide whether it is sufficient to serve the people of the District of Columbia properly as an administrative law judge.

Pearson has a litigation history; commenter Monica points us to this reported opinion stemming from his divorce.

Update, May 2, from ABC News:

[The Chungs] have spent thousands of dollars defending themselves against Pearson’s lawsuit.

“It’s not humorous, not funny and nobody would have thought that something like this would have happened,” Soo Chung told ABC News through an interpreter.

Her husband agreed.

“It’s affecting us first of all financially, because of all the lawyers’ fees,” Jin Chung said. “For two years, we’ve been paying lawyer fees… we’ve gotten bad credit as well, and secondly, it’s been difficult mentally and physically because of the level of stress.”

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April 25 roundup

by Walter Olson on April 25, 2007

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. If so, plaintiff’s lawyer Anthony Buzbee committed an awfully big gaffe last year (caught on tape!), as Peter Lattman explains in the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog (See also W$J). It’s an open secret that trial lawyers venue shop for the best possible jurisdiction to file a lawsuit, but they rarely describe it openly, particularly in stark racial terms:

“That venue probably adds about seventy-five percent to the value of the case,” he said. “You’ve got an injured Hispanic client, you’ve got a completely Hispanic jury, and you’ve got an Hispanic judge. All right. That’s how it is.”

In other parts of Texas, Buzbee went on, a plaintiff may have the burden of showing “here’s what the company did wrong, all right? But when you’re in Starr County, traditionally, you need to just show that the guy was working, and he was hurt. And that’s the hurdle: Just prove that he wasn’t hurt at Wal-Mart, buying something on his off time, and traditionally, you win those cases.”

I guess tort reformers won’t get any debate from Buzbee when they describe places like Starr County as judicial hellholes (PDF).

Buzbee’s a trial lawyer, not a politician, so his reaction is entirely predictable: as per the Galveston County Daily News (and press release from Buzbee’s lawyers), Buzbee is suing the people who ran the seminar and those who allegedly taped him, claiming that he agreed to give his talk on the condition that it not be recorded, and further claiming that circulating the tape was done to “damage his career.” It seems to me that “The truth will damage my career” is perhaps not the smartest p.r. strategy, but I guess we’ll see how his suit goes.

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Judicial Hellholes 2006

by Ted Frank on December 14, 2006

The annual ATRA report is out; here’s the press release and executive summary; the PDF of the full report doesn’t appear to be on line yet.

At Point of Law (Oct. 18), Jim Copland announces a new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Trial Lawyers Inc. project:

This afternoon, the Manhattan Institute released Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Illinois, A Report on the Lawsuit Industry in Illinois 2006. The first comprehensive look at litigation in the Prairie State, the report synthesizes work done by the Illinois Civil Justice League, American Tort Reform Association, and U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, among others. The report also includes new information, such as the percentage of 2004 contributions to the Illinois State Democratic Party that came from plaintiffs’ lawyers and their firms (78 percent) and Illinois’ quantitative rank in terms of its medical-malpractice liability as a percentage of gross state product (49th of the 50 states) and its corporations’ self-insured liability as a percentage of GSP (48th).

The Madison County Record has already reported on the new study here.

More coverage: Adam Jadhav, “Metro East courts have improved somewhat, think tank concludes”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 19.

Way back in 2000, a Texas trial judge dismissed a $2 billion products liability suit against DaimlerChrysler and imposed sanctions of $865,000 on San Antonio attorney Robert Kugle and two associates at his firm, Andrew Toscano and Robert “Trey” Wilson III, also referring the matter to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action. As we summarized the episode in our post of Jul. 20, 2003, the judge found “that the steering decoupler of the sued-over Dodge Neon had been altered to simulate mechanical failure and that Mexican policemen had been asked to change their accounts of the accident giving rise to the suit. An appeals court called the firm’s conduct ‘an egregious example of the worst kind of abuse of the judicial system.’” Now, six years later, the leisurely process of state bar discipline still hasn’t run its course in Toscano’s case, Wilson drew a two-year probated suspension, and both men are practicing law in San Antonio. The American Tort Reform Association doesn’t think that’s a suitable outcome. (Mary Alice Robbins, “‘Texas Justice Massacre’ Billboard Targets Attorney’s Alleged Misconduct”, Texas Lawyer, Jul. 5; David Shepardson, “Chrysler takes fight to lawyers”, Detroit News, Mar. 21).

On Hellholes

by Ted Frank on June 21, 2006

Madison County plaintiffs’ lawyer Evan Schaeffer writes, partially tongue in cheek:

Meanwhile, I’m working on a propaganda campaign of my own. I’m going to take ATRA’s term and turn it on its head. Rather than “judicial hellholes,” I’ll be focusing on those jurisdictions in which the playing field is tilted in favor of big business. I’m calling them “consumer hellholes.” What do you think?

Unfortunately for Evan, there will never be a proper analogue; in these hypothetical “hellholes”, even if they exist, consumers that prefer a court system unfairly biased towards plaintiffs can completely avoid the effects of reform by moving to such a jurisdiction. If tort reform really makes people worse off, then people will leave the states with reform for the states where the plaintiffs’ bar controls one of the three branches. In contrast, businesses have very little power to avoid being sued in judicial hellholes; and consumers who don’t live in the judicial hellhole have little ability to escape the detrimental effects that the hellhole has in crafting nationwide liability. The $500 “tort tax” on automobiles that covers the cost of the liability system has to be paid whereever a car is sold because the manufacturer can’t bar the buyer from taking the car into the hellhole forum.

What bothers the ATLA-ites is that consumers have shown that they prefer tort reform, and the benefits tort reform brings: judicial hellholes are consumer hellholes, because we all bear the costs of runaway litigation and its effect on the economy.

Watch what you say about judges, yet again: For the second time, Illinois circuit court judge Patrick Kelley has dismissed a $110 million defamation lawsuit filed by former Madison County appellate judge Gordon Maag against groups that criticized him during his unsuccessful 2004 double run for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court and for retention in his existing seat. Maag’s attorney, Rex Carr, vowed to appeal. (Paul Hampel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 9; Steve Gonzalez, “Maag’s defamation suit dismissed, again”, St. Clair Record, Jan. 9; “That’s two strikes, now spare us” (editorial), Madison Record, Jan. 15). Since losing the races, Maag has aimed defamation suits at a wide range of local and national groups that include the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the American Tort Reform Association and even the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, with which I’m affiliated (no, I don’t know what his theory for including it was, and I haven’t asked). For more on the controversy, see Dec. 23, 2004, as well as PoL Jun. 10, 2005 and assorted links there.

As usual, the funniest piece on the controversy came from the wonderful (and brave) columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bill McClellan, who explains that he is not among Judge Maag’s critics (after all, who likes getting sued?) but notices that “there seems to be some question as to whether he is a resident of Illinois, as he stated in one of his suits, or a resident of Alabama, as he stated in another.” (“With confusion over residency, lawyer’s critics feel vindicated”, Nov. 25).

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