Stay Alert in Spotting "Judicial Hellholes"

Physician's Money Digest, March15 2005, Volume 12, Issue 5

When President Bush wanted to plug hisagenda for tort reform, his first stop wasMadison County, Ill, recently judged thenumber-one "Judicial Hellhole" for thesecond year in a row by the American Tort ReformAssociation (ATRA; www.atra.org).

Spike in Lawsuits

Madison County, which attracted more than 2200asbestos lawsuits between 2000 and 2003, has alsodrawn a neighbor, St. Clair County, into its orbit. St.Clair County landed on ATRA's Judicial Hellholes listfor the first time in 2004, taking over the number twoslot on the strength of an 1100% jump in the number ofclass action suits filed in the county last year.

In addition, more than 1100 health care providerswere the target of malpractice litigation in the two counties,prompting 161 doctors to leave the area by the endof last year. According to court records, 85% of thesesuits ended in no payment to the plaintiff.

Lawyers who engage in forum shopping are attractedto Madison and St. Clair Counties by big awards suchas the recent $10.1-billion consumer fraud judgmentagainst Philip Morris. Forum shopping also helped landHampton County, SC, in the number three slot on theJudicial Hellhole list. According to ATRA, two thirds ofthe suits filed in Hampton County in 2002 were filed byresidents of other counties and other states.

Other Hellholes on ATRA's dishonor roll include theentire state of West Virginia; Jefferson County, Tex; andOrleans Parish, La. Also cited as one of the top 10 wasPhiladelphia, where ATRA maintains that courts havejeopardized access to affordable medical care in Pennsylvaniaby effectively forcing doctors to leave the state.

Legal Relief Available

There are some bright spots, however. According toATRA, the combination of legislative reform and soundcourt decisions has turned Mississippi into a more hospitableplace for medical practitioners. As a result,Mississippi did not make the Hellhole list for the firsttime in several years. And in Madison County, a judgerecently threw out 25 asbestos lawsuits because ofimproper venue after the plaintiff's attorney had toadmit that there was no plaintiff exposure in MadisonCounty or any other part of Illinois.

According to a report by the consultant group TowersPerrin, every American paid a tort tax of $845 in 2003 tocover $246 billion in tort costs. Of this tax—up from$809 the previous year—$91 went to the cost of malpracticelitigation, a figure that was in sharp contrast tothe $5 per-person cost of malpractice suits in 1975.