HARRISBURG - Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform opened its doors in Harrisburg under the leadership of former state House member from Chester County and long-time advocate Curt Schroder.
Pennsylvania is now on par with dozens of other states with groups dedicated to reforming their state’s respective civil justice systems.
To that end, Schroder said that educating lawmakers, the media and the public at large will be a key part of the new group’s efforts.
“Education is a key part of the effort towards bringing a sense of fairness back to our civil justice system and will help us enact reforms in the law and in civil procedure that will benefit all Pennsylvanians by attracting jobs and helping ensure affordable access to health care,” Schroder said.
Schroder has been an advocate for victims of lawsuit abuse nearly his entire professional life. As a private-practice attorney, he says he witnessed countless instances of fraud and abuse in the Philadelphia court system.
Then as a state House member, he was one of the leading advocates for medical malpractice reform. He also led the fight for a significant reform in the system: the 2011 law that eliminated the doctrine of joint and several liability, in which a deep pocket party in a liability suit could be tagged for 100 percent of the award despite minimal blame for the injury.
Under the Fair Share Act, signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett, a party now pays to the extent it was liable.
“I was picked by Speaker (Mike) Turzai (R-Allegheny) to lead the floor fight (on the Fair Share Act) because as an attorney and with my experience working against abuse in the law, I could speak the language,” Schroder said.
On the legislative front, Schroder says PCCJR will prioritize measures that will bring needed changes in the law. Almost certain to make the list is one already being circulated in the new legislative session by Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester, that would require transparency in a compensation system designed for those who develop the lethal lung disease mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos fibers.
Advocates have pointed at the asbestos compensation system as an illustration of the need for reform. Some lawyers representing those allegedly injured by asbestos exposure are double-dipping by seeking claims in trusts established to compensate those injured and then in the courts, where they are not required to reveal awards from the trusts.
This allows the attorneys to assign as much blame as possible in the civil justice system, as evidence of claims to trusts aren’t introduced into evidence.
Another Kampf proposal will preserve the ability of the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office of General Counsel to contract with outside contingency fee counsel, but it will also preserve due process by requiring that the state remains in control of the litigation.
Other potentials to make the legislative priority list:
-Enact additional medical malpractice reforms;
-Eliminate venue-shopping in which attorneys seek the judges and courts most sympathetic to their clients’ alleged injuries;
-Limit liability for businesses that sell a defective product with no hand in the manufacture or design; and
-Enact reasonable caps on attorneys fees and punitive damages in liability cases.
Schroder said that new groups will also work to defeat legislation supported by the trial bar. One that has been making the rounds in Pennsylvania the last couple of budget sessions would enact a state-level False Claims Act.
In the fight, Pennsylvania is playing catch up with other states, as shown in comparative rankings.
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, which owns the Pennsylvania Record, ranks Pennsylvania's civil justice system a disappointing 37th in the nation.
And the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) put Pennsylvania on its “Judicial Hellholes Watch List,” citing an unfair legal climate in the Philadelphia and Allegheny County courts.
“Some of the state’s economic sluggishness can fairly be attributed to the gnawing parasitism of an aggressive personal injury bar that undermines both economic growth and job creation with its steady onslaught of lawsuits -- particularly those filed in Philadelphia’s and Pittsburgh’s plaintiff-friendly courts,” said ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney.
“Which is why it’s so important for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform to have new leadership from such an experienced and capable reformer as Curt Schroder. Working with businesses, labor, healthcare providers and others, ATRA is confident that Curt and the coalition will effectively educate the public and policymakers about the need for reasonable limits on civil liability, and thereby help boost the economic prospects for everyone in the state.”