Editorial: Time to reform ‘judicial hellholes’

The American Tort Reform Association recently released the latest update of its annual “Judicial Hellholes” report on the status of lawsuit abuse reform efforts across the country. The report includes some encouraging signs of positive results from recent reforms, but there remain numerous states and localities where greedy plaintiff lawyers can still turn defendants upside down and shake them till their pockets are empty.

First, the good news from the past year, as described by ATRA: In state courtrooms, the Illinois Supreme Court “firmly rejected consumer class action abuse.” In California, a state appellate court ruled that all members of a class action suit must be able to show actual injury in order to be included in the case. An Oregon trial court rejected a claim for companionship damages in a case involving an injured pet.

Among state legislatures, the Florida legislature enacted reforms that “address unfair joint and several liability, venue, class action and appeal bond rules,” while in a number of other states, legislators are, according to ATRA, effectively addressing claims involving asbestos and silica damages.

Despite these encouraging developments, though, the list of judicial hellholes in which plaintiff lawyers thrive because of friendly courts, judges and juries remains lengthy. And there is the expectation of strong new pushback against reforms by the plaintiff lobby, particularly the American Association for Justice (better known in years past as the American Trial Lawyers Association).

Topping the list of judicial hellholes is West Virginia, where plaintiff attorneys, judges and friendly rules have combined to create a heaven for instigators and beneficiaries of lawsuit abuse. The West Virginia Legislature did enact a measure designed to ease forum shopping, but, guess what, the state supreme court ruled the new law unconstitutional.

Similarly, in St. Clair County, Ill., the number of plaintiff lawyers filing cases has continued to soar even after a tenfold increase just between 2002 and 2004, according to ATRA. And in Cook County, Illinois courts continue to host countless lawsuits, including a surge in asbestos cases. Also continuing on the top of the hellholes list are the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Madison County, Wisconsin and South Florida.

The AAJ counterattack is expected to be launched in 2007 and “could counter reasonable efforts to increase the fairness and predictability of the civil justice system. New expansions of liability are on the rise, most notably with respect to so-called consumer protection lawsuits and public nuisance actions,” according to ATRA.

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