CHARLESTON -- West Virginia's trial lawyers are calling on the state Chamber of Commerce to denounce a national study that criticizes state courts, a suggestion Chamber president Steve Roberts called laughable.
The Harris Interactive survey, commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform and released Monday, ranked West Virginia's courts as the least friendly for businesses for the fourth consecutive year. Harris surveyed 1,482 corporate lawyers and executives, with more than two-thirds agreeing that a state's legal environment affects making decisions about expansion or location.
The state's trial lawyers group, the West Virginia Association for Justice, said the state Chamber should counter the U.S. Chamber's "false study with the truth."
"We have long been troubled by the reputation West Virginia has," Roberts said Monday. "This is a survey of corporate general counsels around the country and what they think about various states' legal climates.
"Every one of these corporate counsel comes from a company that we would work hard to attract to West Virginia and welcome into the state, and yet our courts are not thought of as being fair by these people.
"We need to be very concerned by what they have to say."
For the study, Harris Interactive surveyed general counsels and senior attorneys or executives in companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. Respondents were asked to rank how states treat tort, contract and class action litigation. They were also asked about judges' competence and how fair juries are in the states.
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns the West Virginia Record.
WVAJ President Timothy Bailey, citing a Cornell law professor, argued that the U.S. Chamber's actions may hurt investments in businesses and said the study is methodologically flawed.
"Why is the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, an organization that is supposed to be trying to attract new businesses to the state -— and with those businesses, good paying jobs —- continuing to allow the U. S. Chamber to attack our state and hurt our national reputation with these worthless studies?" Bailey said.
"I simply ask the West Virginia Chamber show us any attempt that it has made to counter or end these baseless attacks on our state and its business climate."
Roberts said he laughed when he read the statement. He noted that three of the seven-highest jury awards in 2007 were cases in West Virginia courts.
One of those verdicts, a $405 million decision in Roane County, was cited as a reason Chesapeake Energy chose not to build a $35 million regional headquarters in Charleston.
Because Chesapeake bought a company that had allegedly shortchanged property owners on natural gas royalties, the company was on the hook for the verdict, which included $270 million in punitive damages.
The state Supreme Court decided not to hear the company's appeal. One of Roberts' main problems with the state's courts system is no guaranteed right of appeal.
"Rather than say silly things and point fingers at each other, we really ought to seriously consider how we can improve the fairness of our courts so that we have a reputation for fairness and honesty," Roberts said.
"(The trial lawyers) are simply trying to deflect attention from what is obvious to even the most casual observers. They don't want to talk about facts."
The national trial lawyers group backed WVAJ's stance on the study, offering a news release that criticized the U.S. Chamber.
The American Tort Reform Foundation, which annually lists West Virginia among the top "Judicial Hellholes," sided with the survey's findings.
"The ILR rankings are a very useful tool for business executives and policymakers struggling to promote economic growth and job creation," ATRF president Sherman Joyce said.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse executive director Richie Heath said the state will continue to rank near the bottom in similar studies until it has fairer courts and an automatic right of appeal.
"While West Virginia took a positive step forward by creating new specialized business courts and having the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform review our court system, clearly the legal climate in West Virginia is still very challenging," Heath said. "Our state will continue to rank poorly until we have fairer courts, and that includes passing the commission's chief recommendation of granting litigants the automatic right of appeal that exists in almost every other state in the nation."