Top ‘judicial hellhole’ is Philadelphia, study says

Posted: December 16, 2011

Flames leap from the gavel on the cover of a new report that declares Philadelphia No. 1 among the nation's "Judicial Hellholes."

For the second year in a row.

South Jersey overall and Atlantic County in particular were not among the top seven, but did make a "Watch List."

The report, released Wednesday, focuses on perceived abuses in civil courts, not criminal ones, and comes from the American Tort Reform Foundation, which represents businesses, municipalities and professional associations.

So the report's complaints don't address undeserved traffic tickets or dangerous thugs getting probation or light sentences.

The scorn here is for jurisdictions that make suing easy, and tend to favor large monetary awards.

Places that plaintiffs' attorneys might find heavenly.

Taking sharp issue with the "Hellholes" report is the American Association for Justice, the leading trade group for trial attorneys.

"Despite receiving millions in corporate cash, ATRA continues to produce the same stale, recycled report year after year. ATRA's multinational corporate funders should start to question if their dues are spent wisely on such an amateur piece of propaganda," said AAJ president Gary M. Paul.

Philly's faults, detailed for more than three pages out of 43, include:

"Forum Shopping." State laws allow plaintiffs' attorney latitude about where to file, and they prefer Philadelphia, which has "nearly twice the litigation per capita of other Pennsylvania counties, according to court statistics and census data," the report says.

"Plaintiffs' Lawyers Expect More Favorable Trial Outcomes." Settling before trial happens less often in Philadelphia, and jury trials are more common, suggesting "Philadelphia courts demonstrate a marked and meaningful preference for plaintiffs."

"Complex Litigation Center: Efficiency Over Fairness?" The city's CLC, which handles "mass tort litigation, such as pharmaceutical and asbestos cases," has been praised nationally for its push to get to trial within two years. But speeding up the process can be unfair to those being sued, who need time "to fully assess and defend numerous claims, otherwise undue pressure is created to settle," the report says.

"A Statewide Anti-Business Litigation Climate." Several plaintiff-friendly situations lure lawyers from other states to file in Philadelphia, according to the report: "insufficiently rigorous standard for admissibility of expert testimony," and no limits on damages for "subjective pain and suffering" or "the size of awards for punitive damages."

"An About Face in Medical Malpractice Claims." This section delivers praise, not damnation. Plaintiffs were more likely to win and win big in Philadelphia than in other parts of the state and country, until 2002 reforms in Harrisburg, by the legislature and the state Supreme Court, caused the number of medical malpractice filings to fall drastically and become more evenly spread throughout the state.

"Pennsylvania Adopts Fair Share." More kudos, this time to state legislators for recently making awards reflect a defendant's degree of responsibility. Previously, a small fraction of the blame could have meant paying 100 percent of the jury award, the ATRA said.

The seven other "hellholes" were California; West Virginia; South Florida; Madison and St. Clair Counties, Ill.; New York City and Albany, N.Y.; Clark County, Nev.; and McLean County, Ill.

As for South Jersey, it's litigation happy, with 40 percent of businesses there enduring threats of lawsuits, compared to 24 percent statewide, according to a Rutgers study cited in the ATRA report.

Atlantic County has hundreds of pharmaceutical cases before a single judge, as well as a citizenry quick to sue Atlantic City, ATRA notes.

For more about ATRA, including to see a copy of the report, go to www.atra.org.

"Widely ridiculed and debunked" and "an early holiday present for the insurance, tobacco, and drug companies" are descriptions of the report on AAJ's website, www.justice.org.


Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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