WASHINGTON – West Virginia again is last in a study ranking states' court systems.
For the third consecutive year, the Mountain State is ranked 50th in the 2008 State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which was released Wednesday by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
The study, conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., is a national sample of in-house general counsel or other senior corporate attorneys to explore how reasonable and balanced the tort liability system is perceived to be by U.S. business. The 2008 ranking builds on previous years' work where each year all 50 states are ranked by those familiar with the litigation environment in that state.
"Prior to these rankings, information regarding the attitudes of the business world toward the legal systems in each of the states had been largely anecdotal," the report states. "The State Liability Systems Ranking Study aims to quantify how corporate attorneys view the state systems."
A state association of trial lawyers condemned the ILR report, calling it bogus and "propaganda created to dupe West Virginia lawmakers into destroying important consumer protection laws."
"As we have said over and over again, the U. S. Chamber's so-called study is nothing more than a trumped up public relations gimmick to advance its political agenda of destroying consumer protection laws and providing total immunity to billion-dollar corporations that break the law," said Teresa Toriseva, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.
"This isn't a valid analysis of our courts. Very few of the attorneys who participate have ever stood before a West Virginia judge. These are in-house attorneys who are responding exactly the way the Chamber tells them -- and the results are exactly what the Chamber expected them to be.
"It's like polling West Virginia fans at Mountaineer Field on whether or not they want WVU to win the game. It's ridiculous."
The West Virginia Record is owned by an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The executive director of a state group supporting legal reform, however, says the study underscores the importance of this year's Supreme Court race and the need to fix the state's broken lawsuit system.
State voters should study the survey "to cast ballots for candidates who make the connection between a fair and balanced court system and a landscape which invites job creation," said Steve Cohen of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
"What signal does it send to employers when court decisions and judicial policy is a barrier to growing a work force here," Cohen asked. "Health care, too, is compromised when a community hospital is slapped with an outrageous $25 million verdict over a doctor's 'reputation,' as we saw with CAMC this past winter."
Of the 12 subcategories, West Virginia ranked last in six of them: Having and enforcing meaningful venue requirements, overall treatment of tort and contract litigation, treatment of class action suits and mass consolidation suits, punitive damages, non-economic damages and judges' impartiality. West Virginia was ranked 49th in timeliness of summary judgment or dismissal and scientific and technical evidence. The Mountain State ranked 48th in discovery, judges' competence, juries' predictability and juries' fairness.
According to the report on the study, the past six years' rankings show general movement, but a real trend only can be made from the 2006 and 2007 studies because the ILR changed the survey design slightly then. Two elements were added concerning meaningful venue requirements and non-economic damages.
The interviews for the study were conducted by telephone among a nationally representative sample of in-house general counsel, senior litigators and other senior attorneys who are knowledgeable about litigation matters at companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. The 957 interviews, which averaged 23 minutes, took place between Dec. 18, 2007, and March 19. Six percent of the respondents were from insurance companies, and the rest were from corporations in other industries.
Toriseva discounted the validity of such studies, saying other reports have been more optimistic about the state of the state's court system. She mentioned, among others, a report issued last year by the West Virginia University Institute for Public Affairs.
"In The Future of the West Virginia Judiciary: Problems and Policy Options, Richard A Brisbin, Jr. and John C. Kilwein wrote that these studies do not meet accepted research standards," Toriseva said.
Cohen disagreed, saying other rankings show a consistently grim outlook. He noted that Forbes Magazine last year placed West Virginia 50th for job creation, and that the American Tort Reform Foundation has rated the state a "judicial hellhole" every year since 2002. He also mentioned similar findings in Directorship Magazine and from the Pacific Research Institute.
Cohen also noted how three of the nation's seven largest verdicts of 2007 were delivered in West Virginia courtrooms.
"The small steps taken in the capital this year to improve West Virginia's legal environment are a far cry from what will give families here hope for the future," Cohen said.
Beth Walker, a Republican candidate for the state Supreme Court, said the report backs up what she's been saying on the campaign trail.
"This report is further evidence of what I have been saying throughout my campaign about the perception that West Virginia's court system is biased and unfair," Walker said. "Electing justices and judges who are committed to fairness, impartiality and the rule of law is an urgent priority for the future of West Virginia."
Democratic candidate and former Justice Margaret Workman said she doesn't agree with the findings of the survey, but said the problem with perception exists.
"Even if it isn't true, the perception is there," she said. "It's important that we consider what we need to do to change this perception. We need a balanced court system."
In the conclusion of the ILR study, it notes that the rankings and results are based on the perceptions of these senior corporate attorneys.
"It is also important to realize that the perceptions may be heavily influenced by certain individual city or county court jurisdictions within the state," the study states. "But, as we have noted in the past, perception does become linked with reality. If the states can change the way litigators and others perceive their liability systems, we may find considerable movement in their rankings in the future.
"Once these perceptions change, the overall business environment may be deemed more hospitable as well."