Study: Philly courts courting plaintiffs from outside city

By Jon Campisi | Oct 26, 2011

A newly released academic study by a law school professor asserts that Philadelphia’s civil court system is attractive to plaintiff’s from outside of the city – at the expense of local consumers and businesses.

The empirical study by Joshua D. Wright, a law and economics professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, seeks to show what he calls “systemic biases” in Philly’s civil courts, which attract plaintiffs with little or no connection to the city.

This leads to “disproportionate litigation and verdicts relative to other courts,” states the study, released by the International Center for Law & Economics.

The study, which utilized data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, compared filing trends and case outcomes in Philadelphia with those of other Pennsylvania state courts. Through his research, Wright concluded that “something intrinsically unusual is occurring in Philadelphia.”

This includes the fact that Philadelphia courts host an especially large number of cases and have a larger docket than expected; Philadelphia plaintiffs are less likely to settle than plaintiffs in other state courts; and Philadelphia plaintiffs are disproportionately likely to prefer jury trials.

“These findings are consistent with a conclusion that Philadelphia courts demonstrate a marked and meaningful preference for plaintiffs, consistent with both the Complex Litigation Center’s intention of inviting ‘business’ from other courts and criticisms that Philadelphia’s courts provide a unique combination of advantages for plaintiffs,” the study states.

The Complex Litigation Center handles mass tort cases such as asbestos lawsuits and other drug litigation or similar cases. It was designed to streamline mass tort cases and simplify resolution, but instead seems to have created a climate “inviting” to businesses from plaintiffs in other jurisdictions, the study states.

“While this may provide additional work for Pennsylvania lawyers, it also increases the cost of operating the civil justice system in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania more generally – a cost borne by the state’s consumers and businesses,” Wright’s study concludes.

To personal injury lawyer Brent Weiand, of the Philadelphia firm Golomb & Honik, the findings aren’t that surprising.

“Of course a plaintiff would want to file in a county where the jury is more sympathetic to plaintiffs,” Weiand said in a Tuesday phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record.

So, just why are juries more likely to side with plaintiffs in Philadelphia? To Weiand, it’s not so much Philadelphia that’s the issue; court systems in major urban centers in general have to be looked at.

Cities tend to be more Democratic, and in turn, juries seem more likely to side with perceived down-on-their-luck plaintiffs in civil suits.

Suburban counties, however, tend to be more conservative, he said, and perhaps less likely to return a plaintiff’s verdict.

One Pennsylvania legislator is attempting to change venue rules with H.B. 1552. The bill, sponsored by Lancaster County Republican Rep. Bryan Cutler, would mandate that personal injury cases be filed in the counties where the incident leading to the claim actually occurred.

In May, the bill was sent to the state House judiciary committee. A hearing on the bill took place in Harrisburg on Monday.

The bill is being supported by the American Tort Reform Association, which believes the proposal, along with joint-and-several-liability reform that was passed earlier this year, will greatly help the business climate in Philadelphia, named the No. 1 “Judicial Hellhole” by the ATRA in its yearly report.

Weiand, the personal injury lawyer from Philadelphia, questions the constitutionality of Cutler’s proposed legislation, saying his understanding is that venue is a procedural issue, which is strictly left up to the state Supreme Court to decide.

He said he was surprised that Cutler, an attorney, was apparently unaware that such a law would be forbidden under the commonwealth’s constitution.

In a blog he posted on Oct. 21, Weiand said in addition to being unconstitutional, H.B. 1552 would be “unfavorable to accident victims throughout the state because it provides harsh limitations on the plaintiff’s choice of venue.”

Greg Warner, spokesman for state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who heads up the senate judiciary committee, said he wasn’t aware of the specifics regarding H.B. 1552, but he did note that venue was addressed a few years back where medical malpractice cases were concerned. Now, med mal cases in Pennsylvania must be filed in the judicial districts where the alleged incidents took place.

The difference, however, between H.B. 1552 and the latter is that the medical malpractice venue change was done as a procedural matter by the courts; it wasn’t an act of the legislature, Warner noted.

Amy Kelchner, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said she could not answer whether or not H.B. 1552 is unconstitutional.

The issue, she said, will be left to the state Supreme Court to decide. And since there’s a very real possibility that the matter could come before the high court, given that the bill is moving through the legislature, she doubts the chief justice would be willing to answer that question at this time.

“This is an issue that they may have to rule on,” she said in a phone interview.

Cutler, the sponsor of the bill, was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.

Whether or not venue change is handled by the legislature or court system, those who support generalized tort reform seem to be behind any measure that would change the way litigation is handled in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular.

“Plaintiffs lawyers are drawn to Philadelphia courts because they perceive that their clients will receive favorable treatment in the way the laws are administered,” Washington, D.C. attorney Mark Behrens, of the firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, testified during Monday’s state House Judiciary Committee hearing on Cutler’s legislation. “They believe they can get a better deal there than they can at home in front of their local judge and their local jury. This is not to fault the plaintiff’s lawyers. They are trying to game the system to their clients’ advantage, and that is what they are paid to do.”

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