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Tort Reform Association’s Annual ‘Judicial Hellholes’ List Unveiled; California Takes No. 2 Spot

Tort reform association judicial hellholes

The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) has revealed its 2019-2020 list of “judicial hellholes.” The annual list is compiled by the ATRA and, according to the organization’s JudicialHellholes.org website, “shines its brightest spotlight on 10 jurisdictions, courts, or legislatures that have earned reputations as Judicial Hellholes.”

The ATRA has been identifying said “hellholes” in their annual list since 2002. In terms of what factors are weighed when determining the list, their website indicates, “Some [hellholes] are known for allowing innovative lawsuits to proceed or for welcoming litigation tourism, and in all of them state leadership seems eager to expand civil liability at every given opportunity.” In other words, the ATRA identifies ten places each year where tort reform law is (in their opinion) either desperately needed or has run amok. California, which took the ATRA’s top “judicial hellhole” spot last year (and is considered to be a “perennial hellhole” by the ATRA), took the #2 spot among the 2019-2020 rankings released earlier this month.

The ATRA cited certain settlements/lawsuits as examples for why California made the list, including:

-$2 billion and $80 million verdicts against Monsanto Co., over whether its herbicide, Roundup, caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma

-Proposition 65 which, according to the ATRA, has a well known reputation as a “magnet for class action lawsuits” and anti-arbitration measures. The most notable decision the ATRA referenced in this regard was the California Supreme Court’s 2018 Dynamex Operations West v. Superior Court case. Following that decision, the ATRA claims, “the flood gates opened, inundating employers with wage and hour lawsuits [filed] by individuals who were viewed as independent contractors.”

– California’s AB5 law (which is further clarification to the Dynamex Operations case). Following the Dynamex decision, the California legislature codified the ruling into law this year through AB5. Some (specifically the ATRA) feel the new law unfairly targets gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas took the top spot on the American Tort Reform Association’s list. Earlier this year, a jury awarded an $8 billion verdict against Johnson & Johnson, which is part of why, according to ATRA president, Sherman “Tiger” Joyce, California moved into the #2 spot. With that Johnson & Johnson decision, the Philadelphia court effectively became the “worst venue in which to get sued.”

Joyce also indicated that the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas last topped their list nearly a decade ago due to similar concerns such as “flooding of class actions and a lot of major pharmaceutical and asbestos litigation.”

Joyce further referenced concerns that led to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas taking the top spot, including “the [Philadelphia] court serving as the home for…litigation from all around the country in mass torts,” and branding “itself as a specialty court” with “well over 80% in some of the key litigation areas are coming from out of state.”

The full ATRA “judicial hellholes” list includes:

  1. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas
  2. California
  3. New York City
  4. Louisiana
  5. The City of St. Louis, Missouri
  6. Georgia
  7. Cook, Madison, and St. Clair Counties in Illinois
  8. Oklahoma
  9. Minnesota Supreme Court/Twin Cities
  10. New Jersey Legislature

The ATRA purports, via their homepage, to be concerned with “fighting lawsuit abuse since 1986.” However, many (particularly those in the personal injury and tort arenas) are well aware of the ATRA’s pro-commerce agenda. Law.com reported that Peter Knudsen, a spokesman for the American Association for Justice, considers the judicial hellholes list ATRA’s “latest effort to evade responsibility for negligent and dangerous corporate behavior.” Knudsen added, “This year’s offering seems to focus on protecting Johnson & Johnson’s cover-up of the asbestos-contaminated talc found in its baby powder and providing cover for the opioid industry responsible for the scourge of addiction and deaths afflicting communities across America.”

The American Tort Reform Association’s membership consists of more than 300 businesses, corporations, municipalities, associations, and professional firms.

California’s latest tort reform legislation — the new SB41 law, which prohibits reductions of damages for lost future earnings based on race, gender, or ethnicity in personal injury and wrongful death cases — will likely leave ATRA members furious when it goes into effect on January 1. Any legislation that does not further limit one’s ability to sue for tort damages is typically opposed by the American Tort Reform Association. Legislation such as SB41, the first of its kind in the nation, could have widespread effects on tort reform across the country, which is certainly not welcome news for the ATRA.

Hence, it’s safe to say that, as far as the American Tort Reform Association is concerned, California will never fall too far down its list of “judicial hellholes.” However, the “perennial hellhole” seems unfazed by the ATRA’s ranking, particularly when it comes to determining its tort reform legislation.