- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

Certain state courts in Texas, Illinois, West Virginia and Florida are sought out the most by “litigation tourists,” who are guided by personal-injury lawyers to jurisdictions they know will produce a victory, according to a recent report by a national tort-reform interest group.

Courts in Rio Grande Valley and on the Gulf Coast of Texas; Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties, Ill.; West Virginia; and South Florida hear a disproportionate number of cases filed by plaintiffs “who neither lived nor were injured in these jurisdictions,” says the report by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), a group of more than 300 businesses, corporations and municipalities.

Jefferson County, Texas, which includes the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur on the Gulf Coast, is “a notorious class-action magnet,” according to the report, “Judicial Hellholes 2005.”

Between 1998 and 2002, the number of class-action lawsuits filed in the county increased by 82 percent, although only 13 percent of defendants and 64 percent of the named plaintiffs in the cases were residents of the county, the report says.

Texas often is held out as a flagship state by tort-reform advocates because of a series of policies to restrict legal penalties in such cases enacted when President Bush was the state’s governor.

“Unfortunately, ‘judicial hellholes’ continue to exist in Texas,” ATRA President Sherman Joyce said after the report’s release. “Judges in these Texas jurisdictions continue to fail to apply the laws set forth by a decade of reforms enacted in this state.”

The Dec. 13 report cites a number of factors contributing to the designation, including the “willingness of courts to expand liability through novel legal theories” and the “prevalence of forum shopping.”

The report describes lawsuits as “an industry” in St. Clair County, Ill., where lawyers filed 768 new lawsuits seeking more than $50,000 each in damages in 2004 — double the number in trial courts in Illinois counties with similar populations.

“The St. Clair clerk’s office took in nearly $4 million in filing fees in 2004,” the report says, “far more than the $2.56 million cost of operating the court.”

Similar statistics are outlined for the jurisdictions named in Florida and West Virginia. The report also gives a “dishonorable mention” to the Wisconsin Supreme Court for a series of rulings in favor of plaintiffs seeking damages, including one that struck down a state law that previously had “limited noneconomic damages in medical- malpractice cases to $350,000.”

ATRA noted that Hampton County, S.C., was “delisted” after appearing in the report for three previous years. ATRA also praised Mississippi, St. Louis and Missouri for enacting reforms.

While Philadelphia remains on the organization’s “watch list,” it, too, was praised for making reforms.

“‘Judicial hellholes’ can be quenched by public light,” ATRA General Counsel Victor Schwartz said

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