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Tort 'Hellholes' tally holds steady in 2006

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WASHINGTON—The American Tort Reform Foundation's annual list of "Judicial Hellholes" held steady at six this year, according to a report released last week by the Washington-based nonprofit organization.

But political changes in some jurisdictions could result in attempts to role back existing legal reforms, warned Victor E. Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Assn., which is affiliated with ATRF and also based in Washington.

"Judicial Hellholes: 2006" is the fifth annual report examining the state of the U.S. civil justice system on a jurisdictional basis. The report defines judicial hellholes as "places where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits."

All of the jurisdictions in this year's list appeared on last year's list as well, although their order changed to reflect what the researchers considered to be deterioration or improvement in their legal climate. The 2006 list named West Virginia as the worst judicial hellhole; followed by South Florida; the Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast of Texas; Cook County, Ill.; Madison County, Ill.; and St. Clair County, Ill.

The fact that the list is barely half as long as the original 2002 list of 11 jurisdictions represents a wider improvement of the civil justice system, according to the report.

"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," according to the report. "This improvement is a shared result of shining the spotlight on litigation abuse with this report and wise corrections by both the judicial and legislative branches of state governments. It may also indicate that litigation formerly concentrated in a single jurisdiction has dispersed across wider areas."

But the report also identified new trouble spots.

For example, Miller County, Ark., headed the report's watch list because it "hosts more personal injury cases per capita than any other county in the state, and the number of filings continues to increase."

Even Delaware, which the report notes has a reputation for judicial fairness, remained on the watch list because it is continuing to experience a "growing wave" of asbestos liability suit filings.

"This is not an indictment of judges, not an indictment of our legal system," stressed ATRA President Sherman Joyce during the Washington news conference at which ATRF released the report. The "overwhelming majority" of judges and court personnel do a good job, he said.

Mr. Schwartz said he thought there could be change in the judicial environment in jurisdictions where the trial bar enjoyed political success in last month's elections. He said this could manifest itself in efforts to repeal tort reforms that have already been enacted or in legislation designed to expand liability and create new ways to sue.

Report called 'propaganda'

The chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Assn. for Justice, which represents the plaintiffs' bar, dismissed the report as "propaganda" in a statement issued a day before the report's issuance.

"To further pad their profits, big corporations, using their front group ATRA, are once again misleading the public with propaganda to support their case that America no longer needs a civil justice system to hold them accountable for negligence," said Jon Haber.

"The civil justice system is the last resort for those who are injured and the only place every person can get justice when up against the most powerful corporations," said Mr. Haber.

The full report is available at www.atra.org.