The American Tort Reform Association is a group that claims its mission is to bring “real justice in our courts.”  It was founded in 1986 by the American Medical Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies.  Their website claims, “Since that time, ATRA has been working to bring greater fairness, predictability and efficiency to America’s civil justice system. Those efforts have resulted in the enactment of state and federal laws that make the system fairer for everyone. Further, ATRA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with affiliated coalitions in more than 40 states. We are the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform through public education and the enactment of legislation. ATRA’s membership is diverse and includes nonprofits, small and large companies, as well as state and national trade, business, and professional associations.”

Of course, how “fairness” is defined is certainly debatable. And the fact that the other side of the dispute (namely the consumer bringing the tort claim) is not part of their consortium makes you wonder how fairness is obtained with only one party at the table.

ATRA publishes an annual report of what it considers to be “unfair” judicial jurisdictions called Judicial Hellholes.  This year’s report ranks the following jurisdictions as the worst:

  1.  South Florida
  2. Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast Texas
  3. Cook County, Illinois (Chicago)
  4. West Virginia
  5. Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas)
  6. Atlantic County, New Jersey

You can read the full report at their website (they also list out some star jurisdictions as well), but I want to focus on their NJ comments.  Their summary:

Personal injury lawyers seem to have gained a monopoly in Atlantic County, a new addition to the Judicial Hellholes report. New Jersey is known for particularly plaintiff-friendly laws, admitting junk science in court and hosting lawsuits from all over the country against their state’s own economic driver, the pharmaceutical industry. All these elements were on display in the Vioxx litigation in Atlantic County. There is also evidence that litigation fairness is deteriorating throughout the Garden State, leading to the formation of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance in October 2007.

The report focusses on the well publicized Vioxx case, a $2.6 million verdict in an Accutane case causing inflammatory bowel disorder and a $5.7 million verdict in a slip and fall case. The report then expands its covereage to all of NJ, noting the following “litigation madness”:

  • (McDonalds part deux) A suit against Starbucks for not securely affixing the lid of his Chai tea. He claims the tea spilled and caused burns to his hand. The suit seeks compensation for ongoing medical treatment, mental anguish and a claim by his wife “for the loss of certain services from her husband.”
  • The fact that certain OB-GYN’s have resorted to having patients sign liability limitations (or have stopped delivering babies) to reduce their medical malpractice insurance premiums.
  • A jury award in Essex County (Newark) of $70 million in compensatory damages, including $50 million in pain and suffering, to newborn who was severely injured due to allegedly negligent medical care.  The report claims that, “While the case was already a heart wrenching one, the trial court judge allowed the plaintiff’s lawyer to make extraordinarily prejudicial arguments throughout
    the trial and in summation, which effectively spurred the jury to punish the defendant, rather than arrive at fair compensation.”  This case is on appeal to the NJ Supreme Court and ATRA has filed an Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case.
  • Lawyers Can Knowingly Bring a Baseless Claim. According to a new ruling by a New Jersey appellate court, lawyers can now file claims on behalf of clients who they know have baseless claims and are suing only for malicious reasons. As one of the attorneys involved in the case said, “They have created a situation where a client goes to a lawyer and says, ‘I want to file a defamation action even though there was nothing [said] about me that was untrue and I have an improper motive.” The lawyer can then file the lawsuit and, according to the attorney, neither of them is liable.

The report listed as “signs of hope” in NJ several cases that had been overturned on appeal to the NJ Supreme Court and the case of Howe v. Hoffman-LaRoche, in which the court ruled that Michigan resident Howe has no basis of claim in NJ.

If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to comment.