Nation’s Worst ‘Judicial Hellholes’ Expand Liability, Allow Frivolous Lawsuits

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California tops 2021-2022 list; excessive litigation impacts economies coast-to-coast

The most litigious locales in the nation earned the title of “Judicial Hellhole®,” according to the latest report by the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF).

California regained its position at the top as the worst Judicial Hellhole®. ATRF says the state essentially acts as a laboratory for the trial bar where they develop and test novel liability-expanding legal theories. Then, if they find success in the Golden State, the trial bar fine tunes their latest theory and spreads it across the country to other Judicial Hellholes®. 

This year, ATRF named eight total Judicial Hellholes®:

  1. California
  2. New York
  3. The Georgia Supreme Court
  4. The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
  5. Cook, Madison, and St. Clair Counties, Illinois
  6. Louisiana
  7. City of St. Louis
  8. South Carolina’s Asbestos Litigation

As part of the 20th anniversary edition of the annual report, the ATRF also identified both the “Everlasting Judicial Hellholes®” which remain on the list year after year, as well as the “Escaped List,” which have made positive reforms over the years.

The 2021 report identifies concerning trends in civil litigation, including efforts by the trial bar to eliminate arbitration as well as COVID-19’simpact on litigation and liability trends.

“Trial lawyers might promise solutions with lawsuits, but many take unfair advantage and leave vulnerable communities lacking resources due to the unseen costs of frivolous lawsuits while they walk away with millions,” American Tort Reform Association President Tiger Joyce said.

Businesses and other organizations were concerned with potential lawsuits related to COVID-19 early in the pandemic – lawsuits concerning exposure to the virus on their premises, related to efficiency of products, and much more. However, ATRF says, even as COVID-19 diagnoses fall, the threat of liability is far from over.

“One of the biggest fights on the horizon is over vaccination mandates and demands for exemptions,” Joyce said.

Legislators in some states have introduced bills creating new private actions against employers that require their employees to be vaccinated.

“If these bills are enacted, employers will be subject to statutory, compensatory, and punitive damages, in addition to paying attorneys’ fees even if they follow federal law or believe vaccinations are needed to protect the safety of their workers and others,” Joyce said. “This type of sued-if-you-do, sued-if-you-don’t legislation puts employers in an untenable position.”

This year’s report also highlights that in Judicial Hellholes® like California, New York and the three Illinois counties, ATRF is seeing more lawsuit filings that ignore one of the most basic tenets of tort law – requiring proof of an actual injury.

“Courts across the country are expanding liability by ignoring the necessity of an actual injury in order to make a claim,” Joyce said. “We often see this with food-and-beverage-related lawsuits, with claims that some aspect of a product’s packaging or marketing misleads consumers, even though it is likely to have made no difference to anyone’s decision to buy a product.”

ATRF also points out that this occurs in Illinois under the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).

“Entrepreneurial trial lawyers in Illinois seek to cash in on BIPA by targeting businesses that use iris scans, fingerprints, or other facial recognition systems,” Joyce said. “They target businesses with these lawsuits, even though their clients didn’t suffer any harm or loss of any kind.”

In 2021, courts in Judicial Hellholes® allowed questionable studies to serve as expert scientific evidence in trials and courts that issued liability-expanding decisions were joined by state lawmakers and governors expanding liability through the legislative process.

ATRF’s report states that these efforts to change laws lead to bigger pay days for plaintiffs’ lawyers who can more easily target those they perceive to be deep-pocketed defendants.

“We all want to find solutions to make the country better for future generations,” Joyce said. “But endless litigation won’t bring real change.”

Some courts’ loose rules about what qualifies as “expert” scientific evidence leave the door open for “junk science” in those courts, ATRF says.

“Courts in Judicial Hellholes® like California and St. Louis must ensure that the evidence presented in trials is reliable and that jurors are empowered with the best possible information to guide their decision making,” Joyce said.

Courts in Judicial Hellholes® alsoallowed outside parties to fund lawsuits and awarded outrageously high-dollar verdicts, to top it all off.

“Drawn-out litigation costs billions each year and negatively impacts research and development,” Joyce said. “We need to turn back the tide and ensure we maintain access to high-quality healthcare.”

Research shows that lawsuit abuse across the U.S. results in more than $160 billion in excessive tort costs, meaning every American pays approximately $488 each year in a “tort tax.” Tort costs affect 2,211,450 jobs across the country, with an estimated loss of $143.8 million in wages.

“The economic costs and impacts of the excesses in the civil justice system paint demonstrate why we should prioritize and preserve cost-effective alternatives to litigation,” Joyce said. “Everyone deserves equal access to justice under the law – let’s rebalance our courts, remove favoritism, and ensure equality.”

ATRF also ranked a handful of states and courts to its “Watch List” that they will keep an eye on in the coming year due to their histories of abusive litigation or recent troubling developments:

Judicial Hellholes® are deemed the most unjust local courts and state civil justice systems in the country. Read the full report at

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