Group: S. Florida top `judicial hellhole'; W.Va. not much better

Ann Callis knows Madison County’s court system has taken mighty public
knocks, from President Bush branding it an example of medical malpractice
litigation run amok to a special-interest group calling the venue a
“judicial hellhole.”

As the county’s chief judge, Callis didn’t let such image-tarnishing
depictions drive the reforms she’s pushed. But she’s got new proof that her
changes _ with her colleagues’ help _ are quelling the critics.

On Tuesday, the American Tort Reform Association left Madison County off of
its rankings of “judicial hellholes” for the first time in the list’s six
years _ big stuff for the local court system that once topped the rankings
for three years in a row.

“It’s a very upbeat time for all of us in Madison County,” said Callis, the
seven-year circuit judge who became chief judge in May 2006. While
cautioning she’d never put much stock in what the pro-business lobbying
group considers the worst legal venues for lawsuit defendants, the newest
rankings “indicate we continue to move forward, making progress.”

The newest list is topped by South Florida, followed by Texas’ Rio Grande
Valley and Gulf Coast, Illinois’ Cook County including Chicago, West
Virginia and Nevada’s Clark County that includes Las Vegas.

West Virginia has made the pro-business group’s list for several years and
was ranked No. 1 last year. This year, it cited Attorney General Darrell
McGraw for not having transparent hiring practices and for spending
settlement money without legislative control. It also said West Virginia
makes it too easy for out-of-state plaintiffs to file suit, that lawsuits
can be filed without evidence of actual injury and that the partisan
election of judges politicizes the court system.

The group behind the rankings said they strive to “identify areas of the
country where the scales of justice are radically out of balance, and to
provide solutions for restoring balance, accuracy and predictability to the
American civil justice system.”

It said South Florida topped the latest list, among other things, “for its
reputation for high awards and plaintiff-friendly rulings that make it a
launching point for class actions, dubious claims and novel theories of
recovery.”

In defense of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast _ a region that has
made each of ATRA’s lists, this year for what the group said was a surge in
personal injury lawsuits and “several particularly ridiculous lawsuits
filings” _ a consumer group rejected the assessment as “nothing more than a
glorified corporate press release that is short on facts and long on
poll-tested platitudes.”

“Texas citizens have been subjected to decades of pro-defendant legal
changes that have left Texas families holding the bag,” said Alex Winslow,
Texas Watch’s executive director. “Instead of dragging Texas jurors through
the mud, ATRA’s insurance, pharmaceutical, and oil industry backers should
focus on cleaning up their own acts.”

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, Eunice Sigler, said the
judges had not read the report and had no immediate comment.

Nevada’s Clark County’s debut in the rankings, ATRA said, come as a result
of judges “criticized for issuing favorable rulings in cases benefiting
friends, campaign contributors or their own financial interests” _ charges
chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle pans as “a knee-jerk reaction” to certain
published reports.

“The judges in this jurisdiction are fair, impartial and dedicated to
providing everyone equal access to justice,” Hardcastle said in a statement
to The Associated Press. “There is no `Pay for Play’ system; that is
ludicrous, distasteful and a slap in the face to the professionals who serve
as judges in our courts.”

In Illinois’ Cook County, home to what ATRA said was “a disproportionate
number of the state’s large civil cases” lately involving pet food and
peanut butter, chief judge Timothy Evans did not immediately reply to a
faxed request by The Associated Press for comment.

In West Virginia, a spokeswoman for that state’s supreme court declined to
discuss ATRA’s assertions that the Mountain State has “earned a reputation
for anti-business rulings, massive lawsuits and close relationships between
the personal injury bar, state attorney general and the judiciary.”

Such questions about judicial workings once hounded Madison County, which
Bush in January 2005 used as a backdrop for pressuring Congress to pass
legislation limiting jury awards for medical malpractice. And the following
August, Gov. Rod Blagojevich also visited that county, signing in Alton a
new law seeking to hold down steep medical malpractice costs for doctors by
limiting the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against
hospitals and physicians.

But Callis and her colleagues here have required mandatory mediation in
medical malpractice cases and have sought to quash “forum shopping” with a
rule giving plaintiff’s attorneys just one change of judge per class action.

Numbers show improvement. Major civil cases _ those seeking at least $50,000
_ last year totaled 1,145 in Madison County, down from 1,297 in 2005, 1,439
in 2004 and 2,102 in 2003. Asbestos lawsuits dropped to 325 last year,
nearly one-third of the 953 such cases in 2003. There were three
class-action filings in 2006; just three years before that, there were 106.

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