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The Making of a Judicial Hellhole

Question: What makes a jurisdiction a Judicial Hellhole?
Answer: The judges.

Equal Justice Under Law. It is the motto etched on the façade of the Supreme Court of the United States and the reason why few institutions in America are more respected than the judiciary.

When Americans learn about their civil justice system, they are taught that justice is blind. Litigation is fair, predictable and won or lost on the facts. Only legitimate cases go forward. Plaintiffs have the burden of proof. The rights of the parties are not compromised. And like referees and umpires in sports, judges are unbiased arbiters who enforce rules, but never determine the outcome of a case.

While most judges honor their commitment to be unbiased arbiters in the pursuit of truth and justice, Judicial Hellholes judges do not. Instead, these few jurists may favor local plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients over defendant corporations. Some, in remarkable moments of candor, have admitted their biases. More often, judges may, with the best of intentions, make rulings for the sake of expediency or efficiency that have the effect of depriving a party of its right to a proper defense.

What Judicial Hellholes have in common is that they systematically fail to adhere to core judicial tenets or principles of the law. They have strayed from the mission of providing legitimate victims a forum in which to seek just compensation from those whose wrongful acts caused their injuries.

Weaknesses in evidence are routinely overcome by pretrial and procedural rulings. Product identification and causation become “irrelevant because [they know] the jury will return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.” Judges approve novel legal theories so that even plaintiffs without injuries can win awards for “damages.” Class actions are certified regardless of the commonality of claims. Defendants are named, not because they may be culpable, but because they have deep pockets or will be forced to settle at the threat of being subject to the jurisdiction. Local defendants may also be named simply to keep cases out of federal courts. Extraordinary verdicts are upheld, even when they are unsupported by the evidence and may be in violation of constitutional standards. And judges often allow cases to proceed even if the plaintiff, defendant and witnesses have no connection to the Hellhole jurisdiction and events in question.

Not surprisingly, personal injury lawyers have a different name for these courts. They call them “magic jurisdictions.”

Personal injury lawyers are drawn like flies to these rotten jurisdictions, looking for any excuse to file lawsuits there. When a prior Judicial Hellhole Madison County was named the worst Judicial Hellhole in the nation, some personal injury lawyers were reported as cheering “We’re number one, we’re number one.”

Rulings in Judicial Hellholes often have national implications because they involve parties from across the country, can result in excessive awards that wrongfully bankrupt businesses and destroy jobs, and can leave a local judge to regulate an entire industry.

Judicial Hellholes judges hold considerable influence over the cases that appear before them. Here are some of their tricks-of-the-trade:

Pretrial Rulings

  • Forum Shopping. Judicial Hellholes are known for being plaintiff-friendly and, thus, attract personal injury cases with little or no connection to the jurisdiction. Judges in these jurisdictions often refuse to stop this forum shopping.
  • Novel Legal Theories. Judges allow suits not supported by existing law to go forward. Instead of dismissing these suits, Hellholes judges adopt new and retroactive legal theories, which often have inappropriate national ramifications.
  • Discovery Abuse. Judges allow unnecessarily broad, invasive and expensive discovery requests to increase the burden of litigation on defendants. Judges also may apply discovery rules in an unbalanced manner, denying defendants their fundamental right to learn about the plaintiff ’s case.
  • Consolidation & Joinder. Judges join claims together into mass actions that do not have common facts and circumstances. In one notorious example, West Virginia courts consolidated more than 8,000 claims and 250 defendants in a single trial. In situations where there are so many plaintiffs and defendants, individual parties are deprived of their rights to have their cases fully and fairly heard by a jury.
  • Improper Class-Action Certification. Judges certify classes without sufficiently common sets of facts or law. These classes can confuse juries and make the cases difficult to defend. In states where class certification cannot be appealed until after a trial, improper class certification can force a company into a large, unfair settlement.
  • Unfair Case Scheduling. Judges schedule cases in ways that are unfair or overly burdensome. For example, judges in Judicial Hellholes have scheduled numerous cases against a defendant to start on the same day or given defendants short notice before a trial begins.

Decisions During Trial

  • Uneven Application of Evidentiary Rules. Judges allow plaintiffs greater flexibility in the kinds of evidence they can introduce at trial, while rejecting evidence that might favor defendants.
  • Junk Science. Judges fail to ensure that scientific evidence admitted at trial is credible. Rather, they’ll allow a plaintiff ’s lawyer to introduce “expert” testimony linking the defendant(s) to alleged injuries, even when the expert has no credibility within the scientific community.
  • Jury Instructions. Giving improper or slanted jury instructions is one of the most controversial, yet underreported, abuses of discretion in Judicial Hellholes.
  • Excessive Damages. Judges facilitate and allow to stand excessive punitive or pain and suffering awards that are influenced by improper evidentiary rulings, tainted by passion or prejudice, or unsupported by the evidence.

Unreasonable Expansions of Liability

  • Private Lawsuits Under Loosely-Worded Consumer Protection Statutes. The vague wording of state consumer
    protection laws has led some judges to allow plaintiffs to sue even if they can’t demonstrate an actual financial loss that resulted from their reliance on allegedly deceptive conduct.
  • Logically-Stretched Public Nuisance Claims. Similarly, the once simple concept of a “public nuisance” (e.g., an overgrown hedge obscuring a STOP sign or music that is too loud for the neighbors night after night) has been conflated into an amorphous Super Tort for pinning liability for various societal problems on manufacturers of lawful products. Recently, a normally highly respected federal circuit court stretched public nuisance law to potentially cover global warming. The defendants were not India, China, or even the United States, but a handful of energy producers.
  • Expansion of Damages. There also has been a concerted effort to expand the scope of damages, which may hurt society as a whole, such as “hedonic” damages in personal injury claims, “loss of companionship” damages in animal injury cases, or emotional harm damages in wrongful death suits.

Judicial Integrity

  • Alliance Between State Attorneys General and Personal Injury Lawyers. Some state attorneys general routinely work hand-in-hand with personal injury lawyers, hiring them on a contingency fee basis. Such arrangements introduce a profit motive into government law enforcement, casting a shadow over whether government action is taken for public good or private gain.
  • Cozy Relations. There is often excessive familiarity among jurists, personal injury lawyers, and government officials.