Philly Courts: Judicial Hellhole or Best in the Country?

Earlier this year, the Washington D.C.-based Americans for Tort Reform released its annual ‘Judicial Hellholes’ report and, wouldn’t you know it, they ranked Philadelphia’s court system the worst in the entire country. Their main concerns with the city’s courts were what they called “forum shopping for plaintiff-friendly courts” and our “Plaintiff-friendly law, expedited procedures, [and] a reputation for a high plaintiff-win rate and generous awards.” This is the second year in a row we’ve won the not-so-coveted honor. Which means it’s time for everyone to either bow our heads and walk away slowly or change us some laws, right?

Not so fast. Taking Back Our Courts, a project of liberal group Keystone Progress, released their own report this week. And it takes on a bit of a different tone, noting Philadelphia’s court system is, in fact, one of the “best in the country,” while citing the ATR Foundation directly: “Far from being a “judicial hellhole” overrun by frivolous cases, the data show that Philadelphia’s court system not only has an appropriate number of cases, but it handles them quickly and efficiently with no obvious bias for or against one side,” says the report’s summary.

Taking Back our Courts notes that Philadelphia’s tort trial plaintiffs won a median amount of $20,000—well below that of New York ($227,000) and Miami ($128,000) and ranks among the bottom 30 percent of “major metropolitan areas” in terms of rewards. Philadelphia’s median amount has dropped 40 percent of the past five years.

Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress, one of the report’s writers, has said that this report is part of a new advocacy campaign for the court system. The campaign seeks to protect the environment, consumers and women’s issues, all of which are under attack by Pennsylvania’s legislative bodies.

Of the problems the ATR has with Philadelphia—and Pennsylvania, too—is that our law “provides significant flexibility to plaintiffs’ lawyers as to where to file their cases.” A 2009 ruling, which they cite, bluntly states “Pennsylvania does not forbid ‘forum shopping’ per se – to the contrary, our venue rules give plaintiffs various choices of different possible venues, and plaintiffs are generally free to ‘shop’ among those forums and choose the one they prefer.”

And many, they say, often choose Philadelphia for our supposed big payouts. The ATR also cites a study which notes “Philadelphia plaintiffs are less likely to settle their cases before trial than are non-Philadelphia plaintiffs, and they are disproportionately likely to prefer jury trials.”

Though when contacted by WHYY, Darren McKinney of the ATR did not deny KP’s findings, but noted that many cases are settled before trial. “As a defendant, if I fear a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction and I am sued there, I have significant motivation to settle before running the risk of going to trial because once you go to trial then your fate is in the hands of a judge and a jury,” said McKinney. “And the judge decides what evidence the jury hears.”

These conflicting reports are part of an ongoing pattern of right vs. left on issues of Tort reform and what role it plays in American justice. Tort law is the general body of rights provided by courts to provide relief for people who’ve suffered harm by the wrongful acts of others. Very often, that “other” is one’s employer. Conservatives, then, often argue that reform in this definitive law practice needs to happen to protect business interests and the free market, which are under attack from every which way already. It’s hard to go longer than two minutes during a conservative’s open speech or a debate without hearing about one of your everyday scapegoats being the trial lawyer, which implies lawyers fighting business interests on behalf of a client who’s looking for an easy pay day. These trial lawyers, alongside teachers, unions, green energy executives and community organizers are often criticized in conservative circles and used as faceless-but-common enemies.

One Response to “ Philly Courts: Judicial Hellhole or Best in the Country? ”

  1. Actually, Mr. LoBasso, I did refute Keystone Progress’s statistics when I spoke with WHYY. Though not malicioulsy, the reporter with whom I spoke simply misreported that fact. And, astonishingly enough, both she and you failed to report that on Feb. 15 — just two months after my organization cited Philadelphia as the #1 Judicial Hellhole for the second year running — Philadelphia’s Chief Administrative Judge John Herron issued a sweeping 15-point reform order aimed at fixing many of the problems that we identified and documented in our report.

    Of course, various anti-capitalism fringe groups, the personal injury lawyers from whom they get most of their funding, and a few plaintiff-friendly judges still choose to remain in denial about Philly’s history as a place to which plaintiffs from across the country have flocked to file lawsuits. But they and you can rest assured that plaintiffs and their lawyers don’t endure the cost and inconvenience of cross-country travel for nothing; they came to Philly because they knew they had an advantage over defendants there.

    Now that Judge Herron agrees with us, apparently, the days of the plaintiffs’ racket in Philly may be numbered. In fact, if judges there live up to the letter and spirit of Judge Herron’s reform order in the coming months, the American Tort Reform Association is prepared, in unprecedented fashion, to remove Philadelphia from its list of Judicial Hellholes in mid-year. All of which goes to show that ATRA’s past criticism of Philly’s courts was fair and credible, and that Keystone Progress’s defense of those courts has been merely fanciful.

    Darren McKinney
    American Tort Reform Association

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