In June of 2012, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Philadelphia court officials predicted a drop in asbestos and pharmaceutical claims from 2,690 in 2011 to 1,068 in 2012. The numbers have now come in, and the actual drop was more than they anticipated: last year, only 816 claims were filed.
This past summer, Pennsylvania’s Complex Litigation Center established new rules for filing cases in the city, motivated by a desire to keep out-of-state filings to a minimum. With only a few months’ worth of statistics, Judge John Herron calls this drop-off in filings “an excellent reversal of the trend,” suggesting that these new constraints have helped ease the backlog of cases on dockets in the city.
These new measures require that “all discovery be conducted in Philadelphia” and call for “consolidating asbestos cases in groups of eight to ten involving identical medical issues. In each group, only three cases would go to trial, with the others settling. If those cases failed to settle, the group would be dissolved and re-listed for trial.”
The Inquirer article also mentions the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), which was the subject of a post on this blog in December 2012. Every year, this group (which represents many of the world’s largest corporations, like Bayer, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Merck, Shell, State Farm, Farmers Insurance and many more) puts together a list of “judicial hellholes,” locations which “corporate defendants feel are not favorable to their interests.” We pointed out in that article that organizations like The New York Times and Media Matters discredited this report, which “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.’” An ATRA spokesperson is even on record as saying, “We have never claimed to be an empirical study.”
While the number of asbestos and pharmaceutical lawsuits has dropped by more than half in the past year alone, the total number of all suits in the city is down nearly 60 percent over the past 10 years, prompting the ATRA to move Philadelphia off its “judicial hellholes” list and onto its “watch list” instead.
These numbers are very useful to bear in mind, especially as we hear more and more about frivolous lawsuits and “jackpot justice.” Many lawmakers continue to push for tougher measures against what they see as a civil justice system that is out of control, including caps on damages for those harmed through no fault of their own, but the numbers have dropped dramatically. Quite simply, the idea that there are too many frivolous lawsuits is a fiction. Pennsylvania’s system seems to indicate that filings can be kept low while still allowing high-merit cases to be heard and victims to be compensated.