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Florida, California need serious reform against lawsuit abuse

The Hill, December 6, 2017

By: Tiger Joyce

Since its inception in 2002, the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF)’s Judicial Hellholes report has identified and documented the worst abuses within the civil justice system, focusing primarily on those jurisdictions where courts have been radically unfair and out of balance. The content of this report builds off the American Tort Reform Association’s (ATRA) real-time monitoring of Judicial Hellhole activity year-round and reflects feedback gathered from countless firsthand sources.

For Floridians, unfortunately, this year’s report hits very close to home. The state has earned the number one spot as the worst in the country with its aggressive personal injury bar and liability-expanding decisions.

Those who do business, practice medicine or are otherwise unfortunate enough to be hit with a lawsuit in Florida are, by now, all-too-familiar with the cycle. Even when the state legislature, which is heavily influenced by trial lawyers, manages to enact reforms, the state’s high court has a regrettable track record of nullifying reform measures, thus preserving the abuses and boundless liability in the Sunshine State.

Sadly, Florida shows little inclination to make a much-needed course correction. Bipartisan legislative majorities this past year catered to the trial bar in defeating bills that would have addressed contingency fees in workers compensation claims and curtailed both Assignment of Benefits (AOB) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) fraud. Medical malpractice and collateral source reforms were both killed in committee, as was a proposal to eliminate the state’s limit on the bond required for a tobacco company to bring an appeal.

Most states have such statutes, and, if a repeal were accomplished, Florida would have the dismal distinction of being the only state to have done so.  To make matters worse, South Florida’s aggressive personal injury bar’s fraudulent and abusive practices have also tarnished the state’s reputation.

So, significant reforms face a steep climb in the state legislature. But if the politically powerful personal injury lawyers get their way, they may soon have a friend in the governor’s mansion, too. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R) has formed a new political action committee (PAC) as he considers a gubernatorial run, and plaintiffs’ lawyers specializing in medical malpractice and product liability claims were among those contributing large sums to the $820,900 the PAC raised in July. This is not surprising given how that legislative body foiled reform efforts this past year.

What’s more, the state of California earned the number two ranking, which isn’t surprising given the volume of regulations and frivolous over-legislating that occurs in the state. The Golden State’s civil injustices include precedent-defying state supreme court decisions, the Private Attorneys General Act, Prop 65, food and beverage litigation, so-called innovator liability, the California Environmental Quality Act’s impact on affordable housing, court’s expansion of public nuisance law and natural disaster-chasing personal injury lawyers, among others.

These two states represent the worst of the worst, but there are many hellholes scattered all across the country in states like Louisiana, Illinois and New Jersey and cities like St. Louis, Missouri and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Additionally, there are states, courts and jurisdictions that the ATRF has put on its watch list — including Baltimore, Md., the state of Georgia, Newport News, Va., and the state of West Virginia — making them viable contenders for top spots next year if the injustices and abuses don’t stop.

While there isn’t a one-size fits all solution to the Judicial Hellhole problem, ATRA for decades has fought in Congress, state legislatures and in the courts to make the system fairer. Since ATRA was founded in 1986, more than 45 states have enacted portions of our legislative agenda, including policy proposals focused on common sense good government principles like transparency and accountability. By shining a spotlight on lawsuit abuse and the pernicious political influence of the personal injury bar, ATRA hopes to continue to curb lawsuit abuse in many of these Judicial Hellholes.

Tiger Joyce is the president of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA).