Pennsylvania topped the “Judicial Hellholes” list for the second year in a row, only this time tort reform advocates pointed their finger at both the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The American Tort Reform Association’s “Judicial Hellholes 2020-2021” report, released on Tuesday, ranks states, courts and legislatures based on their lawsuit climate. The Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, which topped the list last year, ranked No. 1 this year for “excessive verdicts” and “its ‘open door’ policy to out-of-state plaintiffs.” Also at the top in 2020 was the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, with a pair of rulings that favored plaintiffs.
In all, the report ranked nine jurisdictions to its “Judicial Hellholes” list.
“Some are known for allowing innovative lawsuits to proceed or for welcoming litigation tourism, and in all of them state leadership seems eager to expand civil liability at every given opportunity,” the report says. “While most states saw a decrease in litigation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, activity is expected to resume in 2021 with Judicial Hellholes leading the charge.”
The American Association for Justice, the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ bar, latched onto the tort reform group’s acknowledgement that 2020 saw a decrease in filings.
“While ATRA is forced to acknowledge that most states saw a decrease in litigation, that certainly hasn’t prevented them from demanding that corporations get immunity when they injure or kill workers and consumers,” wrote AAJ spokeswoman Carly Moore Sfregola in an emailed statement. “Not even a global pandemic can stop ATRA from its annual recycling of this debunked corporate propaganda report.”
Last year, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas earned the No. 1 spot after a jury awarded $8 billion against Johnson & Johnson in a Risperdal verdict, reduced this year to $6.8 million. This year, the report cited a $70 million pelvic mesh verdict upheld on appeal this year. It also referenced two rulings by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One was the Walsh v. BASF decision, which “solidified the state’s low standard for expert witness testimony,” the report says. Another was its Oct. 21 ruling in a $12.5 million pelvic mesh verdict, which, in maintaining jurisdiction in Pennsylvania, “openly defied” the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdictional limits in its 2017 holding Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California.
The report continued to rank New York City, at No. 2, and California, at No. 3, high on the list. In addition to its asbestos docket, which included a $325 million talcum powder verdict reduced last month to $120 million, New York City exceeded California in 2020 as the top venue for consumer food and beverage lawsuits, such as vanilla flavoring in numerous products. California, which was No. 2 last year due to Roundup verdicts, continued to rank high for its Proposition 65 litigation, the Private Attorneys General Act and its consumer privacy laws, which voters made even stronger on Nov. 3 with the passage of Proposition 24.
The report also included Georgia again on the list, at No. 6, citing its “nuclear verdicts,” particularly against the trucking industry. This year, a jury awarded $21 million to the family of a man killed, while on a walk, by a trucker who feel asleep at the wheel.
The report made numerous mentions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It said that 21 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws to limit liability for health care companies, businesses, schools and others during the pandemic. Some other legislative efforts on legal reform, however, stalled due to the pandemic, such as in Georgia and Florida, which remained on the “watch list.”
The report also cited the rise in pandemic-related lawsuits, which include consumer class actions brought over canceled vacations and college tuition, cases by passengers of cruise ships and employment litigation against such employers as Amazon and McDonald’s.
“Of particular concern is a growing number of lawsuits that seek to make businesses and others pay for a person’s exposure to COVID-19,” the report says. “These types of lawsuits pose a threat to restarting the economy. A single unwarranted lawsuit could cause a small business that is already on the brink to fold.”
Other key points in the report were:
- Asbestos litigation attributed to several states being among the rankings, such as South Carolina, at No. 4, where the report cited “a concerning pattern of discovery abuse, unwarranted sanctions, low evidentiary requirements, and multi-million-dollar verdicts.”
- The No. 7 venue was St. Louis, Missouri, due to the Misssouri Supreme Court’s decision this year not to review a $4.7 billion talcum powder verdict against Johnson & Johnson. A Missouri Court of Appeals had reduced the award to $2.1 billion but retained the verdict.
- The counties of Madison and St. Clair in Illinois, which in prior years made the list for years due to asbestos litigation, ranked No. 8 because of an increase in class actions brought under the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act.
- New Jersey’s Legislature was on the “watch list” for “numerous liability-expanding bills,” including those that would expand liability over COVID-19 exposure. The report also cited an Aug. 5 decision by New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversing dismissal of a pair of talcum powder lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson based on plaintiffs’ expert evidence.