Jon Campisi Dec. 13, 2012, 7:31am

The Philadelphia civil court system, which had been in the crosshairs of a Washington,

D.C.-based tort reform group for the past two years, can finally breathe a sigh of relief – somewhat.

The American Tort Reform Association, which is dedicated to tort and liability reform through education and legislative avenues, released its annual ‘Judicial Hellholes’ report Dec. 13, and for the first time in two years the City of Brotherly Love is not sitting in the number one spot.

Actually, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas is not even situated within the top five “hellholes” on this year’s list, but rather is placed among the six jurisdictions on the so-called “watch list.”

What exactly does this mean? It means the ATRA is pleased with the strides being taken by new Philly court leadership through reform initiatives designed to give both plaintiffs and defendants a more even playing field.

“Climbing out of a judicial hellhole and staying there isn’t easy,” ATRA president Tiger Joyce said in a statement announcing the release of the latest ‘Hellhole’ report. “But it has been done by other, ultimately reform-minded jurisdictions, and Philadelphia is working to join them.”

Partial credit for Philadelphia being kicked off the top ‘Hellhole’ spot after two consecutive years goes to John W. Herron, the new administrative judge of the civil division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, who, back in February, signed off on new judicial regulations that are designed to greatly affect the way mass tort cases are handled in his jurisdiction.

Part of Herron’s administrative order eliminated the process of reverse bifurcation in asbestos cases, (which is when damages are assessed first and liability in a second phase), limited consolidation in other mass tort litigation coming out of the Complex Litigation Center, and limited the number of cases that can be tried by out-of-state attorneys annually.

These reform initiatives and others have caused the ATRA to “give credit where credit is due,” Joyce, the ATRA president, said in the statement.

“Assuming trial judges will live up to both the letter and spirit of Judge Herron’s [February 15] reform order, and hopeful that the much-needed capstone of venue reform will soon be added to keep lawsuits out of Pennsylvania jurisdictions where they have no business being heard, ATRA members would like to see Philadelphia stay off the Judicial Hellholes list indefinitely.”

In the statement, ATRA general counsel Victor Schwartz went on to say that it’s encouraging when jurisdictions such as Philadelphia “reform themselves and seek to be fair.

“A key point about the Judicial Hellholes project is that we simply seek a level playing field for all parties, not plaintiff-or-defendant-tilted courts,” Schwartz said.

The ATRA said Philadelphia experienced the most significant drop in this year’s ‘Hellholes’ report, going from the number one spot on the ‘Hellholes’ ranking to the number one spot in the lesser ‘Watch List’ category.

The five ‘Hellholes’ named in this year’s report, from top to bottom, are California; West Virginia; Madison County, Ill.; New York City and Albany, NY; and Baltimore, Md.

The ‘Watch List,’ from top to bottom, consists of Philadelphia; South Florida; Cook County, Ill.; New Jersey; Nevada; and Louisiana.

As for Philadelphia, the ATRA previously blamed “plaintiff-friendly judges” for the two-consecutive-year-ranking as number one ‘Judicial Hellhole.’

Under the leadership of the Complex Litigation Center, which was designed to more efficiently handle mass tort cases, the civil courts had actually become a “magnet jurisdiction” for lawsuits from across the country, the ATRA stated in its report.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys were actually encouraged to file their mass tort cases here.

In fact, according to the ATRA, nearly nine out of 10 active asbestos or pharmaceutical cases in the CLC had no connection to Philadelphia, and less than a third of them had any type of connection to Pennsylvania, the report states.

“Local rules and procedures had evolved in a manner advantageous to plaintiffs, and the significant risk of inordinately high jury verdicts in the ‘City of Unbrotherly Torts’ effectively forced most defendants to seek peace with generous settlement offers – even when they believed the facts and law were on their side, and that in a more fairly balanced court they might win their cases,” the report states.

The tide has changed in recent time, however, and the ATRA praises Philadelphia judicial officers and Pennsylvania lawmakers for helping to “initiate what is hoped will be an era of sustained positive change,” the report says.

The report also praised Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille for supporting the reform efforts in Philadelphia.

Castille, the ATRA said, appointed Herron as new administrative judge of the civil division of Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas with the intention of giving the high court “more direct control and involvement in some of the issues” facing the city’s courts.

“That support and control seems well-founded in light of the preliminary statistics on new mass tort filings,” the report reads.

Citing local legal media, the ATRA says that there are a projected 60 percent fewer mass tort cases likely to have been filed in 2012 than in 2011, all thanks to the various reform initiatives instituted at the courts.

“The fresh scent of fairness is likely discouraging new filings from plaintiffs’ attorneys who’d grown accustomed to having an unfair advantage in Philadelphia,” the report states.

The ATRA also mentioned the passage of the Fair Share Act in 2011 as being a step in the right direction when it comes to tort reform in Philadelphia in particular.

The law, which has been enacted in other jurisdictions across the country, says that defendants who are found less than 60 percent liable in civil cases need only be responsible for their share of the damages.

The organization also praised the now-decade-old judicial reform initiative that required medical malpractice cases to only be filed in the jurisdiction in which the cause of action arose.

This apparently greatly cut down on the number of such suits that in the past had been filed in what was viewed as plaintiff-friendly Philadelphia.

Today, in the Keystone State overall, med mal suits are down 44.1 percent from the years of 2000 to 2002, according to the ATRA, and in Philadelphia such actions are down an impressive 65 percent.

Now, the ATRA just wants to see a widespread “forum shopping” bill enacted in Pennsylvania, tackling more than just medical negligence cases.

The term forum or venue shopping refers to the practice of plaintiffs’ attorneys deciding in which Pennsylvania jurisdiction to file suit regardless of where a cause of action arose.

Such a bill prohibiting so-called forum shopping would help continue Pennsylvania down the path of true reform, the ATRA contends.

“After all, it was venue shopping by personal injury lawyers from all around the country, enticed by plaintiff-friendly judges and procedures, that had helped make Philadelphia the Judicial Hellhole it had become,” the report states. “There’s no reason Pennsylvania taxpayers should foot the bill for court resources consumed by out-of-state and out-of-county plaintiffs or otherwise be obligated to serve on juries in cases that belong elsewhere. Other states have adopted broad venue reforms over the last decade, and Pennsylvania should now join them.”

While business leaders surely hail the ATRA’s report as a step in the right direction for Philadelphia’s civil justice system, some agree with the organization that more needs to be done.

“Based on conversations with our members the issue of venue shopping is still a significant concern,” Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, told the Pennsylvania Record. “We continue to hear of actions brought in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court without valid reason.”

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