WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the force of a backhanded compliment, West Virginia has received a bit of good news in this year's Judicial Hellhole report.
The Mountain State has relinquished the top spot on the American Tort Reform Foundation's annual list of the nation's most unfair civil court jurisdictions.
Still, West Virginia is listed fourth in the report, which was released today by ATRF during a morning press conference in Washington, D.C.
And there is more good news: The report's "Points of Light" section details the "unqualified success" of medical liability reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2003.
The report lists six Judicial Hellholes. In order, they are South Florida; Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast, Texas; Cook County, Ill.; West Virginia; Clark County, Nev.; and Atlantic County, N.J. The last two are new to the Hellhole list.
"As the public becomes more aware of problems within the courts, policymakers are more likely to correct those problems," ATRF President Sherman "Tiger" Joyce said. "We've now seen that happen in Mississippi and Madison County, Illinois. And several no-nonsense judges helped West Virginia make progress this year, though not enough to budge it from its solid Hellholes ranking.
"West Virginia has gained its Hellholes reputation by welcoming lawsuits from out-of-state plaintiffs, adopting theories of liability that are out of the mainstream and particularly favorable to plaintiffs, and with its extraordinarily low standards for massive actions that combine many plaintiffs and defendants in a single case."
Joyce specifically mentioned several cases.
"Defendants face jaw-dropping awards for punitive damages in West Virginia, too, such as one this year for $271 million that came on top of $134.3 million in compensatory damages in a class action that revolved around natural gas royalties," he said.
"West Virginia is a place where an Arizona couple can waltz right in to file a lawsuit naming 77 companies as defendants. It's also a place where a fictitious doctor purportedly signed medical documents in support of fraudulent asbestos claims.
"All this lawsuit abuse contributes to the fact that West Virginia lags considerably behind the rest of the country in overall economic growth and job creation."
But American Tort Reform Association general counsel Victor Schwartz mentioned that there was nonetheless "hope in the Hellhole" of West Virginia.
"Hats off to Circuit Court Judge Arthur M. Recht," Schwartz said, noting that Recht gave the plaintiffs' in a controversial case about property damage caused by flooding numerous chances to amend their complaint. "Judge Recht finally drew the line when he dismissed the lawsuit after finding that the lawyers provided no specific information as to how any particular defendant caused an injury to any particular property.
"Judge Recht also found that the plaintiffs' attorneys had filed the lawsuit without evidence and had tried to game the system by engaging in a 'fishing expedition' through the discovery process. In other words, they filed suit first, and only then looked for evidence to support a claim, any claim."
Schwartz said Recht's decision makes it more difficult "now, in West Virginia, for plaintiff attorneys to lump numerous claimants and defendants together in a single lawsuit to sidestep the ordinary requirement that the complaint provide basic, core information for each claim. Without such information, a defendant does not know who is suing, on what basis, or for what damage, and therefore cannot fairly defend against such a claim."
Schwartz also praised Circuit Judges John A. Hutchison and Alan D. Moats for showing "a commendable commitment to the law in respective lawsuits stemming from the flooding case noted above and the "sour grapes effort of a former state Supreme Court justice and brother of the state Attorney General to blame a failed re-election bid on someone else."
Schwartz also noted that in the report's "Points of Light" section, the "unqualified success" of the state's medical liability reforms passed by the Legislature in 2003 is mentioned.
Based in Washington, D.C., ATRA is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform through public education and the enactment of legislation. Its members include nonprofit organizations and small and large companies, as well as trade, business and professional associations from the state and national level. The ATRF is a sister organization dedicated primarily to research and public education.