Earlier this month, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) released its annual report of the top “Judicial Hellholes” in the country, those areas in which “frivolous lawsuits” apparently run rampant. According to the media watchdog group Media Matters for America, these are jurisdictions which “corporate defendants feel are not favorable to their interests.” These jurisdictions include California, West Virginia, Illinois, New York City and Baltimore. Philadelphia is on its “Watch List” due to the number of lawsuits having dropped roughly 65 percent over the past ten years.
Media Matters writes, “The report describes its methodology as largely based on vaguely described ‘feedback’ from ATRA members. The report uses these member complaints to rank states according to ‘places where judges in civil cases systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants.’”
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on December 13 supporting ATRA’s list in spite of the fact that both Media Matters and The New York Times consider the list to be baseless and biased. In a 2007 response, a spokesperson for ATRA even admitted, “We have never claimed to be an empirical study.” The New York Times directs its criticism toward the fact that the evidence ATRA provides is almost entirely anecdotal and not based on any sort of statistical analysis and as a result, its arguments “fall short.”
Over the past few years, the report was roundly attacked by the American Association for Justice, which point out several inconsistencies and eyebrow-raising points:
“‘Hellholes’ cites a ‘jaw-dropping $677 million’ verdict [in a California nursing home class action suit]. That’s partially true; a jury did award that much in July 2010, but Skilled Healthcare will never pay it. In September 2010, the two sides reached a settlement of $62.8 million. This settlement was approved on December 1, 2010, in a scene described in the news as ‘all handshakes and smiles.’ Millions of dollars from the settlement went towards patient safety efforts. [The Eureka Times-Standard (California), 12/1/2010]”
“Between 1996 and 2003, Madison County, Illinois — one of ATRA’s top ‘judicial hellholes’ — had only eleven medical malpractice and wrongful death cases that resulted in verdicts. Of these eleven verdicts, four favored plaintiffs [and] only one of these verdicts exceeded $1 million. [Belleville News-Democrat, 7/18/2004]”
Members of the American Tort Reform Association include many of the world’s largest corporations, including Bayer Pharmaceutical, Pfizer, Caterpillar, Chrysler, Farmers Insurance, ExxonMobil, Ford, Merck, Metlife, State Farm, Koch Industries, Shell Oil, and Nationwide Insurance. These corporations sell different products, but they all have the same goal: preventing individuals injured by their products or negligence from having access to the courts by eliminating equal access to the courts for personal injury and class action lawsuits