The Class Action Weekly Wire – Episode 42: Uphill Battlegrounds: The 2023-2024 Judicial Hellholes Report

Duane Morris Takeaway: This week’s episode of the Class Action Weekly Wire features Duane Morris partners Jerry Maatman and Alex Karasik with their discussion of the American Tort Reform Association’s 2023-2024 Judicial Hellholes Report and what it signifies for corporate defendants in the coming year.

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Episode Transcript

Jerry Maatman: Thank you for being here. I’m Jerry Maatman of Duane Morris, and welcome to our regular weekly Friday podcast, the Class Action Weekly Wire. I’m joined by my partner, Alex Karasik, who’s going to talk about the recent American Tort Reform Association Judicial Hellholes report.

Alex Karasik: Thank you, Jerry. Very happy to be here.

Jerry: Alex, we followed this report over the last decade. It’s always published in the second week of December, and it’s purpose is to identify jurisdictions, venues where corporate defendants have a difficult time defending themselves, either due to liberal judges, liberal discovery or class certification rules, or juries that tend to favor plaintiffs over defendants. What did you find interesting with this year’s Judicial Hellholes report?

Alex: Great question, Jerry. This is the first year ever that the ATRA ranked two jurisdictions at the top of the list, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and these are two very interesting states, and that major corporations do business in both of these states quite frequently. In fact, most major corporations in America have some sort of operation in each.

In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas have proven to be two of the most challenging courts for defendants. In 2022, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania eliminated the state’s venue rule for medical liability litigation which opened up the flood gates for personal injury lawyers to file medical liability claims in courts that they view as favorable. Pennsylvania also demonstrated there’s some eyebrow raising gigantic verdicts to plaintiffs, including a billion dollar reward against Mitsubishi in a product liability case. There have also been some problematic punitive damages rulings which can again lead to the plaintiffs’ counsel filing more and more in these courts. So Pennsylvania is definitely one of the eye popping states, especially being at the top of this list.

Georgia, which is the defending champion from 2022 report, made this list largely in part due to its massive $1.7 billion punitive damages award in a products liability case containing ethically questionable events and alleged bias court orders. The report noted that not much has changed in Georgia in 2023, and the courts are awarding massive verdicts and issuing liability expanding decisions left and right. So for employers who have business operations in Pennsylvania and Georgia, even though they might not traditionally think of these as bad courts to be in they definitely need to be paying attention to the huge verdicts that are coming out of those locales.

Jerry: I thought the inclusion of Georgia and Pennsylvania were quite interesting. Obviously, in our class action practice those are known as two epicenters where plaintiffs’ lawyers are apt to file cases, and most corporate defendants are doing business in those major jurisdictions. I know, Alex, that you practice on a nationwide basis and tend to go to those epicenters. What were some of the other jurisdictions that rounded out the top 10 this year in the ATRA’s Judicial Hellholes report?

Alex: The first noticeable jurisdiction that I saw on there was right here in our home turf Jerry, in Cook County, Illinois, in Chicago. You and I and our team routinely practices in biometric privacy defense actions here in cases brought under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, or the BIPA. and a few years ago, after the Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling about no injury being required to proceed with these lawsuits and saying technical violations are enough. The plaintiffs’ bar has been particularly zealous in pursuing these BIPA class actions, and Cook County seems to be the home of those cases.

#3: Beyond Cook County and beyond Illinois, predictably California is on this list. California is a regular on this report. In California of course, the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA, litigation has resulted in a huge flow of lawsuits against employers. Also Prop 65 lawsuits, and just the overall volume of cases in California, including environmental and ESG cases, are also noteworthy. It’s not a surprise that it’s on this list.

#4: Another state that we routinely see on this list is New York. Most recently New York has some no injury consumer class action lawsuits and some massive verdicts that have caught the attention of the ATRA.

#5: South Carolina, which has had a robust asbestos litigation docket.

#6: Lansing, Michigan, particularly due to liability expanding decisions by the Michigan Supreme Court and some pro-plaintiff rulings out there.

#7: Louisiana – lots of insurance claim fraud litigation as well as some coastal litigation there. Louisiana is another one to keep an eye on.

#8: St. Louis, Missouri. Some interesting verdicts coming out there, including verdicts in the nuclear energy space.

So lots of different courts around the country as we see this and even some landlocked states in the middle of the country. So it’s very interesting to see where these courts are emerging as tough places for employers to be.

Jerry: I’ve always thought that class action litigation is a little bit like real estate – location, location, location is everything – and this report confirms anecdotal information that plaintiffs’ bar seeks favorable jurisdictions in areas where judges, juries, or the case laws aligned to make their cases certification friendly.

The American Tort Reform Association also characterized several jurisdictions as what it calls being on a ‘watch list.’ Are there some other jurisdictions that corporate counsel should be aware of and look to in 2024 as sometimes being problematic in terms of where the plaintiffs’ bar files more cases?

Alex: Yeah, Jerry, one of the new jurisdictions on the watch list that I thought was particularly surprising is Kentucky. The ATRA noted that Kentucky, which is again a newcomer to this list, had some issues with lawyers resorting to unique measures to secure wins, and the mention of Kentucky on here is somewhat of a surprise given that it’s not the typical courts we see – such as California and New York. New Jersey has a powerful trial bar, and New Jersey is increasingly becoming a place where employers need to pay attention if they get sued there, and even Texas, which is, you know, oftentimes thought to be an employer-friendly jurisdiction courts within Texas. But now the Court of Appeals in the Fifth District and the ATRA has opined that certain other courts in Texas are starting to become more pro-plaintiff, more product liability in more expansion of verdicts there. So we’re keeping an eye on Texas too, even though it typically tends to be an employer-friendly state for various state and federal jurisdictions.

But despite the gloom and doom, there are some jurisdictions that are improving according to the ATRA, are at least improving in terms of the prospects of employers being able to succeed in these places. For example, the New Hampshire and Delaware Supreme Courts rejected some no injury medical monitoring claims. So that’s a positive development for defendants there. The New Jersey appellate court in particular also had a notable case of discarding and proper expert testimony.

And I know we mentioned Texas had some other courts leading pro claim, if but the Texas Supreme Court rejected claims involving the manipulation of juries. So I think there’s certainly some hope in those places. And finally, the West Virginia Supreme Court recently placed reasonable limits on employer liability. So while a lot of the courts that are on this annual report are mainstays, there are a few new ones that are kind of catching our eye, but there’s also a few that are seemingly becoming a little bit more friendly for employers and defendants to defend cases in. So, as you mentioned Jerry, location, location, location and the keys to these locations ebbs and flows depending on various factors within those courts.

Jerry: Well, thank you Alex for your thoughts and analysis in this area. I definitely believe the report is a required read and an essential desk reference for corporate counsel and knowing the playing field where you’re sued, your judge, the case law – critical components to crafting essential defense strategies to defeat and defend these large cases. Well, thank you very much for joining us on this week’s Class Action Weekly Wire.

Alex: Thank you, Jerry. It was a pleasure to be here and thank you to all of our listeners. Stay tuned!

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