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Judicial Hellholes 2003

2003 Judicial Hellholes Cover
Read the full Judicial Hellholes 2003 Report.

Bringing Justice to Judicial Hellholes

“Judicial hellholes” are cities, counties, or judicial districts that attract lawsuits from around the nation or the region because they are correctly perceived as very plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions. They are places where the law is not applied evenhandedly to all litigants. In these areas, there is a systematic bias against defendants, particularly those located outside of the state. West Virginia State Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely candidly described one of the reasons behind this phenomenon in his recent book: “As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me….It should be obvious that the instate local plaintiff, his witnesses and his friends, can all vote for the judge, while the out-of-state defendants can’t even be relied upon to send a campaign donation.”*

ATRA has conducted a survey of its members to determine which areas they would identify as judicial hellholes based on their experience. ATRA interviewed individuals familiar with litigation in the hellholes in an effort to determine what makes each area a judicial hellhole, and to document the litigation abuses that occur in hellholes. ATRA conducted independent research of press accounts, studies, court dockets, and other publicly available information to verify and substantiate these claims. While high profile issues, such as medical malpractice, asbestos lawsuits, and class action abuse, dominate the headlines in some hellholes, we believe that such examples indicate a broader lack of fairness that is occurring in these courthouses. Any individual or employer has reason to fear a lack of due process if sued in a judicial hellhole.

This year, 13 areas were most frequently named by ATRA’s members as judicial hellholes and supported by ATRA’s study: Madison County, Illinois; Jefferson County (Beaumont), Texas; Mississippi’s 22nd Judicial Circuit (Copiah, Claiborne and Jefferson Counties); Hidalgo County, Texas; Orleans Parish, Louisiana; Kanawha County, West Virginia; Nueces County, Texas; Los Angeles County, California; Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania; Miami-Dade County, Florida; the City of St. Louis, Missouri, and Holmes and Hinds Counties, Mississippi. The following pages will highlight litigation abuses that have occurred in these areas and provide an explanation why these areas are considered judicial hellholes.

Judicial hellholes are sometimes referred to as “magnet courts” or even “magic jurisdictions” – magic in that they can seemingly pull million or billion dollar verdicts out of a hat and create causes of action previously unknown or procedural rules that are foreign to due process.

In addition to these 13 hellholes, the report also includes anecdotal information on three additional areas: Hampton County, South Carolina; the Northern Panhandle of the State of West Virginia; and appellate level courts in New Mexico. These areas are awarded a “dishonorable mention,” as areas also named by several survey respondents as judicial hellholes, and this report highlights a particular abusive practice or warped litigation environment in these jurisdictions.

After pointing out the problems in hellhole jurisdictions, ATRA highlights “points of light” — places where judges and legislators have recently intervened to stem abusive practices. Such positive actions include the recent enactment of comprehensive tort reform in Texas, a package of tort reforms in Mississippi, and the stemming of forum shopping in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It also includes the clamping down on the flood of mass joinders flowing into Jefferson County, Mississippi, by Judge Lamar Pickard.

The examples above illustrate, there are several reforms that judges and legislators can adopt to restore balance to judicial hellholes. First, ATRA supports the strengthening of venue and forum non conveniens laws. Venue laws determine the appropriate county within a state for a plaintiff to file a lawsuit. A fair venue rule would allow suits to be brought where the person lives, where he or she was injured, or where the defendant’s principle place of business is located. The doctrine of forum non conveniens, a related concept, allows a court in one state to dismiss a claim when the court finds that it would be more appropriately heard in another state. Likewise, courts should ensure that the doctrine of forum non conveniens is applied in a manner that requires a meaningful connection with a jurisdiction. Finally, Congress should enact the Class Action Fairness Act of 2003, which would provide some solace to those hauled into judicial hellholes that their case can be heard in a more neutral, federal forum, as envisioned by the Founders crafting of “diversity jurisdiction” of the federal courts. It is also important for courts to faithfully fulfill their “gatekeeping” role by ensuring that expert testimony is reliable and keeping “junk science” from the courtroom. Frequently overlooked is the importance of improving the jury system. The collective wisdom of a representative jury can provide the foundation for hearing and deciding cases in a fair and balanced way and help avoid outlier verdicts. ATRA encourages employers to adopt jury-friendly policies. The Association also supports legislation, such the model Jury Patriotism Act developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, that is designed promote jury service and ensure that juries include the wide range of knowledge and experience of the community to make informed and fair decisions.

While legislation can help alleviate the problems identified in this report, one of the most effective ways to improve the litigation environment in hellhole jurisdictions is through the fair and full attention of the media and action by readers of this report. ATRA believes that by placing a spotlight on the litigation abuses that occur in hellholes, the public and the media can persuade the courts in hellholes to apply the law fairly to all litigants.

* Richard Neely, The Product Liability Mess: How Business Can Be Rescued From the Politics of State Courts 4, 62 (1998).