(February 28, 2013) California has been identified as the No. 1 “Judicial Hellhole” in the latest report of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA).
ATRA says that the one thing “Judicial Hellholes” have in common “is that they systematically fail to adhere to core judicial tenets or principles of the law.”
As the report points out, rulings in “Judicial Hellholes” often have national implications because they involve parties from across the country, can result in excessive awards that wrongfully bankrupt businesses and destroy jobs, and can leave a local judge to regulate an entire industry.
It is because of these factors that ATRA said the “least fair civil court jurisdiction is California.”
‘Preposterous’ Consumer Class Actions
As reported by numerous media outlets including The New York Times and CBS’s 60 Minutes, California is increasingly becoming the choice venue for some of the nation’s “most preposterous consumer class actions,” according to ATRA.
The report states: “These claims are brought in the once Golden State because some judges have broadly interpreted the state’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) to require no proof of deception, reliance, or injury, while applying lax class certification standards.”
Such class action lawsuits continue to be filed frequently in California despite the overwhelming voter support in 2004 for a reform aimed at eliminating them.
Asbestos Lawsuits Overburden Court System
Certain California courts have served as a magnet for asbestos lawsuits. According to the California court system’s research arm, “the Superior Courts of Alameda, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Counties attract nearly all of the asbestos filings in California.”
MICRA under Attack
According to the report, trial attorneys are launching legal challenges to the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). This California law, in place since 1975, limits subjective damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases to $250,000 to preserve access to affordable health care. Damages for medical treatment and other losses, as well as punitive damages, remain unlimited in California.
‘Phantom Damages’ Legislation
The report also highlights a 2012 legislative attempt to overturn a 2011 California Supreme Court ruling that required courts to base damage awards for medical expenses on the amounts plaintiffs or their insurers actually paid for treatment, not the initially billed amounts that were never paid by anyone.
Cuts in the Courts
California state “courts have seen their budgets slashed by $1.2 billion – more than 24 percent – over the past five years.
In April 2012 the Los Angeles Superior Court announced the “most significant reduction of services in its history,” including 350 workers laid off, the closing of 56 courtrooms (24 of which hear civil cases), and an end to court reporter services for civil trials, which may negatively impact the appeals process, the report states.
More recently reported in November 2012 by The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, Los Angeles court officials now say they’ll additionally “shutter 10 regional courthouses to address a [newly] projected $50 to $80 million budget shortfall.”
Also, The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this year that “Gov. Jerry Brown plans to slash another $200 million from California courts to help balance his January budget, possibly resulting in a ‘disastrous impact’ for the legal system.”
Some Good News
According to the report, there is a bit of good news coming out of California courts: the California Supreme Court held that plaintiffs’ lawyers cannot sue companies, which sold pumps and valves to the Navy, for workers’ exposure to asbestos-containing materials added to those products decades after their sale (see Points of Light, p. 35).
The report also highlighted California voters soundly defeating Proposition 37, a trial-lawyer written ballot measure that most significant California newspapers condemned as a “scam” to promote “shakedown” lawsuits against food companies that fly in the face of science
Tort Reform Foundation
The Judicial Hellholes program is a project of the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF), begun in 2002. In annually published reports, the program has documented various abuses within the civil justice system, focusing primarily on jurisdictions where courts have been radically out of balance. To the extent possible, ATRF is specific in explaining how and why particular courts, laws or regulations con produce unfair civil justice outcomes in the jurisdictions cited.
The ATRF is a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, founded in 1997. The primary purpose of the Foundation is to educate the general public about how the American civil justice system operates; the role of tort law in the civil justice system; and the impact of tort law on the private, public and business sectors of society.