HARRISBURG – A recent, massive Philadelphia verdict that bucked a small national trend shows the city's court isn't treating businesses fairly, Pennsylvania's legal reform group says.

But the Philadelphia Bar Association disputes the assertion that the city is a "Judicial Hellhole" - a title given annually by the American Tort Reform Association to jurisdictions it deems problematic for companies.

The verdict - the first reached in Philadelphia's Complex Litigation Center, which is handling more than 1,500 cases over the blood-thinner Xarelto - was the first win nationally for plaintiffs and included a whopping punitive damages award.

“After three verdicts for the defense in the federal court Xarelto bellwether trials, the Philadelphia court awarded $27.8 million to a Xarelto plaintiff," said Curt Schroder, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform.

"Of that amount, only $1.8 million was awarded to compensate the plaintiff for alleged injuries. The punitive damages awarded in the amount of $26 million were 14 times the amount of compensatory damages.

"No one wants to be sued, but to be sued in Philadelphia often subjects a defendant to outlandish and unreasonable damages."

Schroder stated 85 percent of businesses responding to a U.S. Chamber Institute of Legal Reform report indicate that a state’s lawsuit climate is “an important factor in deciding where to locate and grow their businesses.

The same report saw Pennsylvania rank 38th out of 50 states in litigation climate, with medical malpractice payouts in Pennsylvania being among the highest in the nation on a per capita basis. The ILR owns the Pennsylvania Record.

Earlier in December, ATRA named the city a Judicial Hellhole, focusing on Philadelphia's CLC. The state Supreme Court is also an area of concern for ATRA.

“The ATRA Judicial Hellholes report is a stark reminder that in Pennsylvania, employers and health care providers still face an uphill struggle in court, especially in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas,” Schroder said. 

“The findings in this report are consistent with other studies that have been critical of the impact of Pennsylvania’s courts on job creation and health care availability.”

The CLC has long been a haven for out-of-state plaintiffs. The percentage of claims belonging to out-of-state plaintiffs has traditionally been in the high 80s. In 2016, the percentage for pharmaceutical lawsuits dropped to 74 percent. 

However, in 2017, CLC stats show that figure has jumped to an unprecedented 94 percent.

Currently, more than 6,400 cases have been filed in the Risperdal mass tort litigation in Philadelphia and more than 1,560 cases in Xarelto mass tort litigation.

Schroder says it begs the question of why the suits were filed in Philadelphia County, as opposed to York County, Lancaster County or Tioga County instead.

“If Pennsylvania has jurisdiction, then certainly plaintiffs attorneys could bring suit in other parts of the state. The obvious answer is that in most counties other than Philadelphia, a defendant still has a reasonable chance at winning or a reasonable verdict if found liable. Filing suit outside of Philadelphia would not be a lucrative payday for the attorney,” Schroder said.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Deborah R. Gross issued a statement criticizing the ATRA report on behalf of the organization, which numbers 12,000 attorney members among its ranks.

“We condemn this unwarranted and degrading attack on our courts, which undermines public confidence in our judicial system. Philadelphia’s courts are among the finest in the country,” Gross stated.

Gross explained per the 2016 First Judicial District Annual Report, approximately 90 percent of civil cases filed in Philadelphia were disposed within 24 months of their initial filing. 

“Innovative programs, such as the Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, Veterans Court, Mental Health Court and Project Dawn have been introduced to address the economic and social problems that plague our city. The Commerce Court program has a well-deserved excellent reputation for its expert handling of business disputes in a timely fashion, with 94 percent of its complex cases being disposed within 24 months of initial filing,” Gross said.

Gross also pointed out the court’s Complex Litigation Center (CLC) had 6,196 total cases pending in 2016, with 5,601 of them being pharmaceutical cases and 595 being asbestos cases.

“These court programs and others serve as models that other court systems seek to emulate. Each year, thousands of Philadelphians – individuals, businesses, plaintiffs and defendants – rely on our courts to deliver fair and speedy justice," Gross said.

"This special interest group is entitled to its opinion. However, words matter and so do perceptions. The attempt to diminish faith in our judicial system is an attack on our democratic process. 

"As guardians of justice, it is our responsibility as lawyers to protect and defend the courts against this unwarranted and baseless label."

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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