Part two of a three-part series.
In 2009, the top 10 jury awards in the United States alone totaled $1.5 billion. Eight were doled out in states with the worst tort climates as measured by the U.S. Tort Liability Index.
When judges and juries in the worst jurisdictions, referred to by the American Tort Reform Association as “judicial hellholes®,” abet these get-rich-quick schemes, ordinary Americans lose by paying more for goods and services and suffering needless job losses and business closures.
Consider Pleasantville, New Jersey, a town of 19,000 people near Atlantic City. More lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies in Pleasantville than anywhere in the country, but the town hasn’t been hit by bad drugs.
Personal injury lawyers have learned that judges and juries in Pleasantville are more likely to rule in their favor. They flock there from across the country as litigation tourists, even though often neither plaintiff nor defendant is from the town.
Cook County, Illinois, with 41 percent of the state’s population, hosts nearly two-thirds of the state’s litigation, and South Florida, home of WhoCanISue.com, have something in common — besides clogged courthouses.
Their elected judges must campaign for their jobs. This takes money, and personal injury lawyers are often the biggest contributors. Judges repay the favor by ruling for the lawyers when they appear before their court.
A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the judge. There’s no better way to befriend a judge than to become a campaign donor.
Awards against out-of-state corporations (nonvoters) are twice as high in states that seat judges using partisan elections than in states that use nonpartisan selection methods. In a moment of extreme candor, Richard Neely, a retired West Virginia Supreme Court judge, stated the bias:
“As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone else’s money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me.”
When judges act as politicians in robes, justice is eroded. Unfortunately, the jackpot justice administered by these judges and their lawyer cronies imposes huge costs on the rest of us.
Ordinary consumers unwittingly bankroll these multimillion-dollar awards by paying higher prices and having fewer jobs and businesses. Residents of these places bear a disproportionate share of the “sueage” problem in these jurisdictions.
In the early 2000s in West Virginia, for example, out-of-control lawsuits drove medical-liability insurance premiums through the roof. Doctors fled. West Virginia Executive reported that 34 West Virginia hospitals had lost an average of 5 percent of their medical staff by 2003.
That year state legislators responded to the crisis by capping noneconomic-damage awards in lawsuits alleging medical malpractice. Almost immediately, the number of lawsuits filed against health-care providers dropped by 50 percent and doctors returned to the state.
In 2004, 377 new physicians received licenses in West Virginia, the highest total in five years.
Small business owners in judicial hellholes® also pay a hefty price. Hilda Bankston and her husband ran a pharmacy in plaintiff-friendly Jefferson County, Mississippi—known for having more plaintiffs than actual residents for many years. They were sued more than 100 times even though they’d done nothing wrong.
Lawyers targeting deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies included the Bankstons in the lawsuits just so they could keep the trials in Jefferson County, where they had a better chance of winning. The litigation nightmare eventually cost the Bankstons their family business—the only drugstore in the community—and some say Mr. Bankston his life.
Judges, juries and lawyers should dispense justice, not cash. We’re all stuck with the tab when plaintiffs and their lawyers view casino courtrooms as the easiest path to riches. State legislators should shut down these casinos with commonsense lawsuit reforms, and give ordinary Americans some long overdue relief.