West Virginia Record

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

ATRA exposed: Hellhole report nothing short of fraud

By The West Virginia Record | Dec 15, 2005

To consider the American Tort Reform Association's report a fair, scientific analysis of West Virginia's legal climate is ludicrous.

ATRA is a front group for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and billion-dollar corporations. Its report says exactly what those corporations want it to – that West Virginia's courts are out of control because our judges and juries put the safety of West Virginia consumers ahead of corporate profits. This year, it has crossed the line.

The American Tort Reform Association's 2005 Judicial Hellhole Report is not just a one-sided piece of propaganda — it is nothing short of outright fraud.

In its unrelenting charge to give big corporate special interests immunity, ATRA will stop at nothing—even if that means lying to West Virginia lawmakers and consumers.

With deliberate malfeasance, it wrote the 2005 report and presented it to us as "fact," yet the report's own footnotes expose the fallacies.

Do ATRA and its allies actually believe that West Virginians are stupid?

ATRA claims that we are a "judicial hellhole" because two Florida law firms filed class action suits in West Virginia against DuPont for chemical exposure from Teflon cookware.

ATRA did this, knowing that no such suit has been filed here. In its footnotes, the report even lists the states where the Teflon lawsuits have been filed — and West Virginia is not on the list.

Not one source cited in the footnotes identifies West Virginia as one of the jurisdictions where those suits have been filed.

After a reporter caught its fraud, ATRA posted a correction to the report on its Web site that states that the lawsuits were never filed here, but it is remorseless that it attempted to manipulate West Virginians into believing that our court system is bad.

Although the claim represents a substantial portion of the argument that West Virginia is a hellhole, ATRA spokesman Victor Schwartz said that it didn't matter anyway — we're still a hellhole and the ranking would not change. Errors? Who cares! No facts? No problem!

And who needs facts when you can make your own? Ridiculously, the report cites guest columns written by the heads of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, another front group funded by those same corporations, and editorials that quote ATRA's own news releases as independent verifiers of the report's 'findings.'

Let me be clear about what they have done. They have paid PR flaks to write guest columns in the local newspapers — then they quote their own opinion pieces and label them as editorials in the report, trying to mislead the public into thinking they're quoting the editorial board of a newspaper.

Personal opinions — particularly when people are paid to have them - and your own propaganda are not the basis of any valid analysis.

When "journalists" are cited, they include stalwart beacons of news writing excellence like Michael Fumento. He's best known for his book that claims that heterosexual AIDS infection is a myth. The work was criticized in a Library Journal review which reads, "Fumento throws a lot of statistics around, his argument is contradicted by the continuing spread of AIDS among heterosexuals. Not a balanced approach."

That sounds oddly like what a reviewer could write about this Judicial Hellhole report.

The report's unrelenting bias is also seen in its attack against Justice Larry Starcher for refusing to recuse himself in cases that involve Massey Energy and its subsidiaries—while ignoring the fact that Justice Brent Benjamin owes his seat on the court largely to independent expenditures made by Massey CEO Don Blankenship — not to mention ATRA and the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform.

It quotes the state's Judicial Code of Ethics which states that judges cannot hear cases in which "their impartiality might be questioned." The report claims that we are a hellhole because Starcher won't recuse himself. With that reasoning, the same is true if Benjamin refuses as well—but that is never mentioned.

The West Virginia Record's manifesto states that it "aims to protect the public's interest by reporting on West Virginia's civil justice system thoroughly and vigorously."

If that is indeed what this newspaper wants to do, then it must denounce this so-called "report" and tell its West Virginia readers that the American Tort Reform Association is deliberately lying to them about the status of our state courts. It is the only way to ensure that this newspaper has any journalistic integrity.

Peyton is president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

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