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January 3, 2011 2:45 AM, EST

Philadelphia Tops ATRA’s Annual Listing of Worst U.S. Places to Be Sued in Court

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Jan. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

Philadelphia has knocked New York City from the top spot on the American Tort Reform Association’s list of the worst places to be a defendant in a lawsuit.

“Punitive damage awards over $1 million have reportedly tripled in Philadelphia courts,” ATRA, a judicial watchdog group that monitors court cases and lobbies for changes in tort law, said in the Dec. 14 statement announcing the group’s ninth annual list.

Philadelphia’s judicial leadership, ATRA said, “is engaged in a campaign to draw in massive personal injury lawsuits from around the country, viewing the increase in lawsuits and out-of-town lawyers as a boost for the court’s revenues and the local restaurants and hotels.”

This is the third time since ATRA began publishing the annual list in 2002 that Philadelphia has been listed as one of the worst jurisdictions.

West Virginia, however, still holds the record as the consistently worst place to be sued, according to ATRA. In all, the state has been on the list eight times and was in the “dishonorable mention” category on the very first ATRA list in 2002.

This year, West Virginia is listed as the third-worst place to be sued, coming in behind Philadelphia and California, “particularly Los Angeles and Humboldt counties,” ATRA said.

James Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said he has not heard of any large lawsuits in the Philadelphia courts involving trucking firms.

“I haven’t heard of any problems with us specifically . . . but apparently, there are other people who have complained about the awards and trials in that area,” Runk said.

Although ATRA credited South Florida for some improvements in its tort system, the region was listed as the fourth-worst place to be sued. ATRA called it “the epicenter of the nation’s tobacco litigation, with several recent verdicts in the tens of millions of dollars for a single plaintiff and where defendants’ evidentiary arms are tied behind their backs.”

Cook County, Ill., took the fifth spot on ATRA’s “worst” list, and Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, was listed sixth.

ATRA previously has cited all the locales on its list this year, either on the list itself or on its annual watch list of locations that could be elevated to the “worst” list.

“You do see some of the same names again and again,” said Robert Pitcher, vice president and state law specialist in American Trucking Association’s law department. “However, there are some indications that maybe there is progress and maybe even that the [ATRA] publication has some benign effect on it.”

The list, Pitcher said, receives a lot of press coverage, and some jurisdictions “loudly complain” when they are listed.

“There’s some indication that, even in West Virginia, it’s had some impetus towards reform,” Pitcher added. “The very worst of the [list] several years ago were in Southern Illinois, in the counties across from St. Louis. Those have fallen off the list.

“They still appear on the watch list,” Pitcher said, “and I won’t say they won’t come back on the main list, but there has been some improvement there and, certainly, tort reform efforts had a lot to do with that.”

The jurisdictions on the ATRA watch list this year are: Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois; Atlantic County, N.J.; St. Landry Parish, La.; the District of Columbia; and New York City and Albany, N.Y.

From ATRA’s point of view, Pitcher said, the troublesome places for defendants caught up in lawsuits tend to be those jurisdictions with a combination of highly aggressive trial lawyers and judges who have been elected or appointed to the bench with strong support from trial lawyers.

ATRA members include professional groups of engineers, doctors and architects, as well as some of the nation’s leading manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, aircraft, cars, trucks and furniture.

Other members of ATRA include ATA, the National Association of Home Builders and the American Petroleum Institute.