‘Junk Science,’ Outlier Verdicts Put St. Louis Atop Latest ‘Judicial Hellholes’ List

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The American Tort Reform Foundation issued its 2016-2017 Judicial Hellholes® report, naming courts in Missouri, California, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Virginia and Texas among the nation’s “most […]

The American Tort Reform Foundation issued its 2016-2017 Judicial Hellholes® report, naming courts in Missouri, California, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Virginia and Texas among the nation’s “most unfair” in their handling of civil litigation.

“With both this annual report and a year-round website, our Judicial Hellholes program since 2002 has been documenting troubling developments in jurisdictions where civil court judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally to the disadvantage of defendants,” began American Tort Reform Association president Tiger Joyce.

“This year, thanks to the Show Me Your Lawsuits State’s lax standard for expert testimony, ‘junk science’ is driving groundless lawsuits and monstrous verdicts that have made the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis the #1 ranked Judicial Hellhole,” Joyce continued.  “The overwhelming majority of plaintiffs filing these suits are not from St. Louis, or even from Missouri. They travel from across the country to exploit a weak venue law as their lawyers spend heavily on television advertising that works to prejudice potential jurors against defendants.

“Ranked second this year is perennial hellhole California, where lawmakers, prosecutors and plaintiff-friendly judges inexorably expand civil liability and thus invite the nearly 1 million new lawsuits filed there each year,” Joyce explained.  “Of course, the politically influential personal injury bar is enriched by such litigiousness, even as tightened state budgets make it increasingly difficult for state courts to keep up with the volume.  Nonetheless, a very poorly reasoned state high court decision this year effectively invites even more out-of-state plaintiffs to clog dockets further.

“Across the country, New York City’s Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL) court, our #3 Judicial Hellhole,  has incredibly come to favor plaintiffs even more since the corruption conviction of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, which led to the replacement of that court’s top judge.  But despite early signals that Justice Peter Moulton might carry out needed reforms, he has since shown his determination to ignore balanced procedural trends in asbestos litigation nationwide by reestablishing punitive damages and normalizing the consolidation of cases at the expense of defendants’ due process rights.

“Next on this year’s list comes Florida’s Supreme Court, from which flow liability-expanding decisions that ignore state lawmakers’ prerogatives and motivate South Florida’s plaintiffs’ bar to become even more aggressive.  Meanwhile, alliances between personal injury lawyers, shady medical clinics and various service providers continue to target insurance companies, and consumer protection lawsuits seem to serve no one but the lawyers who gin them up.

“It’s a similar story in New Jersey, where bad high court decisions have boosted consumer litigation and undermined arbitration agreements in seemingly lawful contracts, and a lax standard for expert testimony continues to attract many products liability plaintiffs from other states.

“Three historically litigious counties in Illinois – Cook, Madison and St. Clair – collectively comprise our sixth ranked hellhole this year,” noted Joyce.  “Whether it’s medical malpractice, product liability or disability access lawsuits, Cook County is the wrong place to defend a lawsuit.  Meanwhile, with cozy relationships between judges and local lawyers stacking the deck against defendants, largely rural Madison County still serves as the nation’s asbestos lawsuit capital.  Neighboring St. Clair County also hosts more than its fair share of litigation while its judges manipulate the judicial selection system to remain on the bench.

“Rounding out the latest Hellholes list are Louisiana, Newport News, Virginia, and Hidalgo County, Texas,” Joyce reported.  “The Pelican State’s trial-lawyer-turned-governor has hired rich political donors to run specious, multibillion-dollar litigation against the energy industry, while plaintiff-favoring interpretations of maritime law in the shipbuilding town along Virginia’s coast results in the nation’s highest win rate at trial for asbestos plaintiffs.  And at the southern tip of Texas, a flood of groundless, even fraudulent storm-damage lawsuits is prompting both judges and lawmakers to act.”

Joyce said the annual report’s marginally less severe “Watch List” jurisdictions this year include the supreme courts of Georgia, Montana and Pennsylvania, as well as courts in McLean County, Illinois, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  The Watch List also critically scrutinizes a federal judge’s handling of multidistrict litigation in the Northern District of Texas and, for what Joyce says “is, hopefully, the last time,” the rapidly reforming but once perennial Judicial Hellhole of West Virginia.

Singularly unsound state high court decisions in Arkansas, Indiana and Maryland comprise the report’s latest list of “Dishonorable Mentions.”  And the report’s “good news,” or “Points of Light,” include fair and balanced judicial decisions in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Oregon; as well as positive statutory reforms enacted in Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.

“Finally, this year’s ‘Closer Look’ examines litigation under the federal False Claims Act’s qui tam provision,” Joyce said.  “It allows private individuals to sue on behalf of the federal government and obtain a ‘bounty’ if successful. As a result of a series of legislative expansions and judicial rulings, this law, originally enacted to battle fraud in wartime contracting, has morphed into a trial lawyers’ dream.  Penalties available under the law have dramatically increased while it’s become much easier to bring these claims, and the promise of more federal funding has enticed states to enact similarly problematic laws.  And a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding a lower court award even though the whistleblower flagrantly violated the law’s 60-day seal requirement, is likely to encourage more questionable claims.”

Full text of the 2016/2017 Judicial Hellholes report is posted here, or read the Executive Summary .

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