- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

West Virginia is the worst place to face a civil lawsuit in the United States, according to a report released yesterday by a national tort-reform group.

Judges in the state, along with judges in South Florida, Southeast Texas and Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois, “systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants,” said the report by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), an organization of businesses, nonprofits and trade groups.

The sixth annual report, “Judicial Hellholes 2006,” names districts that allow “forum shopping,” which is the practice of seeking to have legal cases heard in the court thought most likely to provide a favorable judgment, mass consolidation of class-action lawsuits and unreasonable expansions of liability, according to the group.

In addition to citing six top “hellholes,” the report includes a “watch list” and a series of “dishonorable mentions.”

“The top six hellholes are in states that recently enacted significant tort reforms, yet a handful of judges are either ignoring those reforms or otherwise abusing their discretion to distort cases in favor of plaintiffs,” said group President Sherman Joyce.

In West Virginia — described in the report as a “field of dreams for plaintiff’s lawyers” — one medical doctor, Ray Harron, was paid millions of dollars by personal injury lawyers to diagnose as many as 75,000 asbestos victims since the mid-1990s, according to the report.

A representative for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said the office had no comment on the report. Calls to the state development office were not returned.

Miami courts have a reputation for high awards, the group contends. In July, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a $145 billion punitive award against tobacco companies, thought to be the largest punitive award in American history, as excessive and in violation of due process.

In Rio Grande City, a small town in Texas near the Mexican border, a 71-year-old smoker with a 28-year history of heart disease died of a heart attack. According to the report, the man, who was underweight and had high blood pressure, took Vioxx — the pain reliever found to raise the risk of heart attack when used for more than 18 months — for no more than 17 days. In April, a jury awarded the man’s family $32 million in damages.

Merck & Co. Inc., which manufactures Vioxx, asked for judicial review of the case after it was discovered that one of the jurors knew the plaintiff and had accepted interest-free loans from her.

In response to the report, the American Association for Justice, a group of plaintiffs attorneys, released a statement detailing job and small business growth in West Virginia, Florida, Texas and Illinois.

“ATRA is nothing more than a front group for insurance, pharmaceutical and big tobacco corporations seeking to evade responsibility for negligence, and this report is just another piece of their business propaganda,” said Jon Haber, chief executive officer of the organization.

In addition to “hellholes,” the report identified “points of light” it credits with improving civil justice and curbing asbestos litigation: the Illinois Supreme Court, the California Appellate Court, the Florida Legislature, various state legislatures and courts, and the Oregon Trial Court.

“Overall, the type of extraordinary and blatant unfairness that sparked the Judicial Hellholes project and characterized the report over the past few years has decreased across the board,” said Victor Schwartz, the tort-reform group’s general counsel.

“This improvement is a shared result of shining the spotlight on litigation abuse and the wise corrections by both the judicial and legislative branches of state governments.”

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