CHARLESTON – Two groups with vested interests in the state’s civil justice system had opposite but expected views to the latest Judicial Hellhole report.
For the second consecutive year, West Virginia is on the Watch List in the American Tort Reform Association’s annual ranking of the “most unfair” courts in handling of civil litigation. Florida, California, St. Louis, New York City’s asbestos court and Philadelphia are the top five in this year’s report.
Once a perennial leader on the list, “West Virginia’s legal climate has vastly improved over the past three years,” according to the ATRA report that was released Dec. 5. It says that is “thanks to numerous statutory reforms undertaken after Mountain State voters decided they’d had enough of trial lawyer-controlled lawmakers – and jobs-killing expansions of civil liability – and threw many of the bums out on Election Day 2014.”
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse praised state leaders for efforts to improve the state’s legal climate.
“We applaud Governor (Jim) Justice, Senate President (Mitch) Carmichael, Speaker (Tim) Armstead and the bi-partisan coalition of legislators who have worked to improve our state's once notorious legal system,” WV CALA Executive Director Roman Stauffer said. “Over the last three years, these leaders have enacted much-needed lawsuit reforms to ensure our courts are fair and balanced and as a result, more opportunities are available for West Virginians.”
The West Virginia Association for Justice, on the other hand, discounts the report and ATRA.
“ATRA’s so-called Hellhole report is ‘fake news,’” WVAJ President David Hammer said. “It’s useless propaganda and part of a well-funded PR campaign. Corporate CEOs have given ATRA millions to limit corporate accountability and take away our right to trial by jury.
“What ATRA wants to do our civil justice system is an injustice to every West Virginian who believes in the Constitution. The West Virginia Legislature’s first priority should be protecting West Virginians – not helping corporate billionaires rig the system at the expense of our safety and our freedoms. It’s wrong."
Stauffer said that while WV CALA thinks the state has made improvements in terms of its legal climate with reforms passed in each of the last three legislative sessions, he said the report also notes that more can be done.
“We must also reflect on the areas where our state continues to need improvement,” he said. “We will be working to address these areas, like the creation of an intermediate court of appeals, seat belt admissibility and medical monitoring standards during the upcoming legislative session.
“While our state's legal climate has dramatically improved in recent years, we cannot lose sight of the fact that much work remains to ensure fairness and balance in our legal system for all West Virginians. Governor Justice and legislators should be proud of the reforms recently enacted, but also be vigilant of the reforms that will bring our state in line with a majority of states across the country.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead said another year on the Watch List is good news for the state.
“I’m pleased that for the second year in a row West Virginia has been free of the Judicial Hellhole designation," Armstead, R-Kanawha, told The West Virginia Record. "Unfortunately, our state bore that label from the report’s inception until 2015. Since taking over in 2015, Republican leaders have taken bold steps to make our civil justice system more fair and predictable, and that commitment has been reflected in our ranking in this annual report.
"We plan on continuing these reforms in the coming session, including the consideration of a number of the proposals identified in the report. One such area in which there is particular interest is in relation to venue reforms.”