"Judicial hellholes"

Philadelphia tops latest list of 'judicial hellholes'

Corporate defendants are wringing their hands over a specialized local court in Philadelphia that handles tort claims, putting the city atop their latest list of the worst places for companies to be sued.

Philadelphia is ranked No. 1 in annual survey of "judicial hellholes" that's set to be released on Tuesday. The survey is conducted by the American Tort Reform Association, a business-backed group in Washington that supports changes to the tort system. Lawyers for plaintiffs have regularly criticized how the report is put together and the companies behind it.

This is the first time that Philadelphia has topped the list, which is in its ninth year. Either South Florida or West Virginia has been No. 1 on the list in each of the past four years, and both remain on the list this year.

The association's criticism of Philadelphia focuses on what's known as the Complex Litigation Center, which handles mass torts such as recent claims against drug-makers Bayer and Wyeth. The report describes the center as "decidedly tilted against many lawsuit defendants."

"Scheduling unfairness, encouragement of ‘litigation tourism,' consolidation of dissimilar claims, and failure to use court reporters are among the disturbing examples," says a copy of the report obtained by The National Law Journal.

As one piece of evidence, the report cites a March 2009 story in the Philadelphia-based Legal Intelligencer, which is affiliated with The National Law Journal. Judge Pamela Dembe, head of the local trial courts, told the newspaper she wants to make the Complex Litigation Center more attractive to attorneys "so we're taking business away from other courts."

The report cites other press reports and courts data, as well as complaints from "various defendants" and "various attorneys." It does not name them, expressing a fear of retaliation.

Plaintiffs' lawyers have long denounced the report's methodology as flawed. In an e-mail today, a spokesman for the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers' trade group, dismissed the annual ranking.

"Despite all the chemical companies and polluters behind this front group, it appears ATRA is going green — recycling the same junk report that has been debunked and ridiculed year after year," said the spokesman, Ray De Lorenzi. "It's an early holiday token of thanks to its drug, tobacco and insurance industry funders and a ploy for these corporations to continue their negligent behavior and avoid accountability."

Rounding out this year's "judicial hellholes" list are California's Los Angeles and Humboldt counties, West Virginia, South Florida, Illinois' Cook County and Nevada's Clark County.

The American Tort Reform Association is also planning to roll out a new Web site Tuesday. Victor Schwartz, its general counsel, said the site will provide updates on courts systems and information about legislative and executive branch actions. The evolution, Schwartz said in a prepared statement, is necessary "as both technology and the liability-expanding strategies of the always formidable litigation industry evolve."

(Published by BLT - December 13, 2010)

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