ATRF President Sherman Joyce
WASHINGTON -- South Florida is again the country's most plaintiffs-friendly jurisdiction, according to the American Tort Reform Foundation's annual "Judicial Hellholes" report, released Tuesday.
South Florida overtook West Virginia, last year's No. 1 that fell to the second spot. Cook County in Illinois is third, Atlantic County in New Jersey is fourth, New Mexico appellate courts are fifth and New York City is sixth.
"Our top four are what I would call regulars," ATRF President Sherman Joyce said. "That's a great disappointment to us."
The report says South Florida, listed as No. 1 in 2007, is known for its medical malpractice claims, tobacco lawsuits and generous verdicts and is growing a reputation as a haven for slip-and-fall suits because of a lower burden of proof.
"Supermarkets, corner stores, and restaurants have no choice but to settle, regardless of whether it could have prevented the accident," the report says.
"In addition, Florida is one of the few states that allow those who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs to sue the automobile manufacturer for failing to prevent their injuries by designing a safer car, while hiding the driver's responsibility for the crash from the jury."
It also notes a scandal involving Fort Lauderdale lawyer Scott Rothstein, who is alleged to have run a $1 billion Ponzi scheme by selling investments in non-existant legal claim settlements. Attorney Hank Adorno is also alleged to have failed to distribute a $7 million class action settlement to Miami property owners.
Ruben Rodriguez of Miami is also alleged to have taken confidential hospital records to a lawyer.
And that's not all.
"In fact, the organization representing plaintiffs' lawyers, the Florida Association for Justice, is itself in hot water for its involvement in a racially-offensive campaign flier intended to defeat a pro-tort reform candidate for the state Senate," the report says.
The flier was part of a campaign against John Thrasher, a Republican who was eventually elected.
The report says thousands of tobacco trials have begun in the region. The Florida Supreme Court rejected a $145 billion verdict against tobacco companies in 2006, but said members of the class could sue individually.
In November, a Broward County jury awarded a $300 million verdict for the sister of Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle.
Concerning medical malpractice claims, the report says malpractice insurance rates in South Florida are among the highest in the country.
And former lawyer Curtis Wolfe has experienced "wild success" with his Web site, whocanisue.com, the report says.
"The company, based in Boca Raton, is aggressively advertising its Web site, which allows aspiring plaintiffs to easily select a category of injury, such as 'accidents,' a subcategory, with 'slip-and-fall' among the options, and then provide a zip code to obtain a phone number and e-mail address for a nearby lawyer who might take the claim," the report says.
"The referral service has installed advertisements on billboards and bus shelters for its service, and television spots featuring 'buxom nurses and a pack of lawyers chasing an ambulance.' Personal injury lawyers, who pay a minimum of $1,000 annually to appear on the Web site, report that they are receiving twice as many calls as usual."
The ATRF called it a "relatively quiet year" for West Virginia, but still placed it on the list, as it has done regularly since 2002.
The report says some issues have taken a positive turn but the state still gives plaintiffs an advantage. State Attorney General Darrell McGraw is also mentioned for his practice of hiring campaign-contributing private attorneys to represent the State without taking bids from other firms.
At No. 3, Cook County made the report for a fifth straight year. The county, the ATRF says, is a destination for private attorneys.
"Consider the recent example of a lawsuit arising out of the August 2008 Spainair Flight 5022 jetliner crash, which killed 154 people," the report says.
"Despite the fact that this tragedy occurred in another country, on a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Gran Canaria, Spain, a resulting wrongful death lawsuit was filed this year in none other than Cook County. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of 18 crash victims, named 11 aviation product manufacturers as defendants, only one of which is actually based in Cook County.
"The fact that investigating authorizes have concluded pilot error was a major cause of the crash seems of little consequence."
Atlantic County also maintained its previous position at No. 4. The report calls it a "mass tort capital" because it is home to the central management for 18 mass tort designations.
"These mass tort actions, however, have taken a heavy toll, and have compromised the affordability and availability of some medications," the report says. "This year, for instance, the Atlantic County mass tort designation for the popular prescription acne medication Accutane helped prompt the manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche, LLP, to discontinue making the product.
"Factoring into this decision was a recent adverse Atlantic County trial court judgment in which the court restricted Hoffman-La Roche's statistical evidence and expert testimony suggesting that Accutane, in fact, does not cause the adverse conditions plaintiffs' attorney alleged."
New Mexico's appellate courts, fifth on the list, has basically beccome the state's insurance industry regulator after a series of plaintiffs-friendly decisions, the report says. The state has become a "hotbed for insurance class-acction litigation."
"A 2009 report prepared by the Judicial Evaluation Institute and Sequoyah Information Systems that evaluated judges of the New Mexico Supreme Court and Court of Appeals on issues of civil liability
shows that the courts' inclination to rule for plaintiffs has not changed," the report says.
"In examining the outcome of civil suits spanning several years, the JEI report found in two-thirds of the cases, state supreme court justices ruled in a manner that expanded liability. Intermediate appellate court judges varied in their rankings, but did not fair much better than high court judges."
No. 6 New York City's litigous climate have cost the City $554 million this year, the report says.
"This year a drunk subway rider who stumbled onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming N train collected from NYC Transit to the tune of $2.3 million," the report says.
"In another case, a girl who was text messaging while walking did not see an open manhole cover and fell in. The city workers had stepped away to grab a cone from their truck when the accident occurred. Fortunately, she was quickly rescued by apologetic workers and only suffered minor scraps and bruises. Predictably, the city suffered a lawsuit."
John P. Avlon, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that the total money spent settling lawsuits agaisnt the City is more than the next five largest American cities combined.
Montgomery and Macon counties in Alabama moved out of the top six, as did Los Angeles County.
On the Watch List are: California; Alabama; Madison County, Ill.; Jefferson County, Miss.; and Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
ATRF Counsel Victor Schwartz noted that the Hellhole Report has led to change, especially in places like Madison County.
"The purpose of the report is not to badger, but to encourage equal justice under the law."
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.