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Judicial Hellholes 2008

Judicial Hellholes 2008 Report Cover
The full Judicial Hellholes 2008 Report is available for download.

Executive Summary

Judicial Hellholes are places where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an inequitable manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits. In this seventh annual report, ATRF shines its brightest spotlight on seven areas of the country that have developed reputations for uneven justice.

West Virginia
West Virginia reclaims the #1 ranking this year for its near perfect
storm of anti-business rulings, massive lawsuits and cozy relationships
between the personal injury bar, the state attorney general
and some in the judiciary. The state’s highest court has a history
of plaintiff-biased decisions, paying damages to those who are
not injured, allowing mass trials, permitting lawsuits outside the
workers’ compensation system, rejecting long-established legal
principles, and welcoming plaintiffs’ lawyers from other states to
take advantage of its generous rulings. To make matters worse,
West Virginia is one of only two states that do not guarantee a
right to appeal a civil verdict, even if a multimillion-dollar award is
clearly excessive under the law or the trial court violated proce-
dural fairness by allowing a jury to decide punitive damages before
it found a defendant legally responsible for a claim. There also may
be no state with a closer alliance between the state attorney general
and politically-connected personal injury lawyers. This alliance has
wreaked havoc at the expense of civil justice.

South Florida
South Florida maintains its reputation for legally excessive awards
and plaintiff-biased rulings that make it a launching pad for class
actions, dubious claims and novel legal theories creating new types
of lawsuits. This year South Florida was home to a record-breaking
award in an asbestos case. And though medical malpractice claims
may be coming down off their peak, the area is still home to some
of the largest such awards. Not surprisingly, its doctors pay among
the highest insurance premiums in the nation. It is also a place
where professional plaintiffs patrol small business sites for tech-
nical violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hoping to
gin up litigation. Broward County has recently seen more than its
share of judicial misconduct allegations. So yet again, this hellhole
has many problems.

Cook County, Illinois
Cook County, Illinois, with its reputation for hostility toward
corporate defendants, has long been known as a receptive host
for lawsuits. In past years, the Chicago area experienced a surge in
asbestos claims, embraced class action lawsuits and became known
for excessive awards. Cook County still hosts significantly more
than its proportional share of lawsuits in the state, as its courts
permit “forum shopping” whereby lawyers from other parts of the
state or country can bring lawsuits that have little or no connection
to Cook County. It was also a Cook County court that threw
out a state law aimed at solving medical liability problems that had
set physicians fleeing the state. At press time, the Illinois Supreme
Court was still considering the appeal.

Atlantic County, New Jersey
Atlantic County, New Jersey, and the state known as the “nation’s
medicine cabinet,” has become the destination of choice for those
suing the pharmaceutical industry. Believe it or not, some of these
cases are brought on behalf of people who do not even claim to
have been harmed by taking a drug. Instead, lawyers are seeking
massive payouts for anyone who merely purchased a drug. Other
areas of the state have problems, too, such as particularly large
personal injury awards in Monmouth County and an astounding
appellate court ruling in a Cape May case holding restaurant and
bar owners responsible for accidents caused by drunken patrons,
even if those patrons didn’t consume alcohol while at their estab-
lishments. Such decisions are certainly bad for small businesses,
but lawyers are doing all right: An advisory committee to the New
Jersey Supreme Court found that a contingency fee lawyer may in
some cases take as much as half of his or her client’s recovery.

Montgomery & Macon Counties in Alabama
Montgomery & Macon Counties in Alabama this year moved up
from their recent Watch List rankings thanks to legally excessive
verdicts, controversial alliances among government officials and
personal injury lawyers, and suspect court rulings. Montgomery
County courts returned two of the most excessive verdicts against
pharmaceutical companies in the country totaling almost a
quarter-billion dollars. Alabama’s attorney general outsourced
lawsuits to trial lawyers who may be motivated more by their personal
interests than by the public interest. Meanwhile, in nearby
Macon County, two judges gave new meaning to the phrase
“jackpot justice” in awarding a plaintiff 1,000 times the maximum
payout of a gaming park’s malfunctioning slot machine.

Los Angeles County, California

Los Angeles County, California, has returned to the ranks of
Judicial Hellholes, in part, for allowing “shakedown” lawsuits
brought primarily against small businesses under the Americans
with Disabilities Act, and for otherwise hosting astonishingly
excessive verdicts. The county long known as “the bank” has
remained one of the most desirable places in the nation to file
lawsuits. Los Angeles this year produced a startling number of
large asbestos awards. And in one recent string of lawsuits stemming
from a practical joke, just about everyone walked away with
a payment.

Clark County, Nevada
Clark County, Nevada, lawyers recognize that they have a problem
– and it isn’t gambling or drinking. According to one recent allegation
by the FBI in Las Vegas, plaintiffs’ attorneys try to game the
system in favor of their clients by contributing politically to the
judges before whom they appear. Defense lawyers feel the scales of
justice are tipped against them, as shown by one instance in which
a court ordered a new trial when a defense lawyer had the audacity
to mention frivolous lawsuits and individual responsibility in his
closing argument. Meanwhile, courts do not appear to show the
same concern when a personal injury lawyer exhorts jurors to
“send a message” by returning a huge verdict. Many Clark County
lawyers are also looking for a way to exceed a voter-passed limit
on damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases,
which would cause more doctors to flee the state.

Watch List

Beyond the Judicial Hellholes, this report calls attention to several
additional jurisdictions that also bear watching for suspicious or
negative developments in litigation, histories of abuse, or laudable
efforts to improve themselves. Watch List jurisdictions fall on the
cusp – they may fall into the Hellholes abyss or rise to the promise
of Equal Justice Under Law.

  • Rio Grande Valley & Gulf Coast of Texas
  • Madison County, Illinois
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • St. Louis (the City of), and St. Louis & Jackson counties, Missouri