Quaker City courts have troubled history; some reject 'plaintiff-friendly' criticism

By Michael P. Tremoglie | Feb 1, 2012

Pennsylvania is known as the Quaker State and Philadelphia as the Quaker City because both were founded by William Penn, who was a member of the Society of Friends - also called Quakers.

Quakers hold to "a belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Divine."

Some would suggest, however, that Philadelphia's courts are anything but divinely inspired.

The January edition of Philadelphia magazine featured an article by the publication's chairman Herb Lipson. Writing in his "Off the Cuff" column, Lipson recounted his experience in a civil trial 40 years ago in Philadelphia. The magazine was being sued and he learned, accidentally, that the verdict was pre-ordained. The fix was in, Lipson said he was told.

The litigation involved an article in which Philadelphia magazine claimed an Atlantic City nightclub owner, Reginald Edghill, was a major cocaine dealer. The owner sued. While the trial was in progress, Lipson said he was attending a party in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. He met a friend, a tort lawyer, who asked him about his case.

Lipson told his tort lawyer friend that he felt things were going well with the trial. The lawyer replied that he had already lost the case, "Your case is fixed," Lipson quoted him as saying.

The lawyer was correct.

Philadelphia magazine was ordered to pay the plaintiff $7 million. The law clerk for Judge Bernard Snyder later revealed that the judge and the nightclub owner had been discussing the case privately, outside of the courtroom throughout the trial.

A Sept. 14, 1989 Philadelphia Inquirer article said that in 1987, Snyder "became the first Philadelphia judge ever barred from holding judicial office by the state Supreme Court after it found he had indeed committed misconduct in the Edghill case. Also in 1987, Berks County Senior Judge Frederick Edenharter overturned Snyder's $7 million award to Edghill...(and) ordered a new trial...Edghill's suit was settled for an apology, a retraction and an undisclosed sum.")

Lipson concluded his article by commenting on the dangers of doing business in Philadelphia.

"The legal system is just one more reason why doing business in Philadelphia, or trying to run a medical practice here, or a newspaper, or pretty much any other enterprise, is fraught with danger," he wrote.

Philadelphia's civil courts have been labeled the nation's top "Judicial Hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Foundation for the last two years. The Wall Street Journal noted the court's personal injury venue shopping reputation in "City of Brotherly Torts" published in December 2010.

These critics maintain that the Philadelphia civil courts are disposed to give plaintiffs a favorable verdict.
Other criticisms have been leveled at the Quaker City courts after a remark by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court's President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe.

She said in a 2009 interview with the Legal Intelligencer that the administrators of the Complex Litigation Center (CLC), a court established to process mass tort cases, wanted to take "business away from other courts" because significant revenue for the court can be generated by mass tort filing fees. Since plaintiffs choose the venue for filing, this comment was seen as more evidence that Philadelphia was a plaintiff's paradise.

But while the Philadelphia court system has its detractors, it also has its defenders. One such champion is Maxwell Kennerly of Philadelphia's Beasley firm. He says that Philadelphia is not as bad as some people say it is.

Kennerly said that the Complex Litigation Center is beneficial to defendants and plaintiffs. He said he believes that some type of consolidation is needed for mass torts. As far as criticisms as having a pro-plaintiff bias, he doesn't buy it.

"I have not seen much empirical support for the criticisms," Kennerly said.

"For example, the defendants win three out of four malpractice suits in Philadelphia...So until I see some data that proves that the Philadelphia courts are biased in favor of the plaintiffs, I can't believe it. So until I hear someone say that here are some rulings that are biased in favor, it is difficult for me to accept the conclusion."

A study done by the American Judicature Society that was commissioned by the nonpartisan court reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts indicated that there may be some reason for concern. Since the late 1980s, PMC has been an advocate of improving the process for selecting Pennsylvania's judges as well as other reform measures for Pennsylvania's judiciary.

Although the PMC study concerned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, some feel the same principle could be applied to the state's lower courts as well.

The report examined civil cases decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2008 and 2009. It found that in 60 percent of the cases, at least one of the litigants, lawyers, or law firms had contributed to the election campaign of at least one justice. In nearly one-third of the cases (32 percent) a single litigant, lawyer, or law firm had contributed to at least four of the six elected justices' election campaigns.

It was also common for a single party-typically a large law firm, PMC noted in their press release about the study - to have made multiple contributions to the justices' campaigns.

The case data was provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Campaign contribution data was provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The analysis, said PMC, was limited to contributions of at least $1,000, including direct contributions and attorney PAC contributions.

PMC indicated that the data showed there were three attorney PACs making significant contributions to justices serving in 2008 and 2009.

These were Philadelphia Future PAC, Committee for a Qualified Judiciary, and Committee for a Better Tomorrow.

As PMC's Executive Director Lynn Marks noted, the study makes no effort to discern bias by the justices in favor of campaign contributors.

However, she said, "When one party to a case has contributed to a member of the Court deciding that case, it creates an appearance of influence that causes citizens to doubt the fairness of our judicial system."

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