By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
In the wake of criticism of the Philadelphia civil court system from defense-minded and conservative quarters, Keystone Progress, a Pennsylvania liberal advocacy group, said in a report today that the First Judicial District “has an appropriate number of cases relative to its size, but it handles them quickly and efficiently with no apparent favoritism towards plaintiffs.”
The report was written by David Ward and Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress.
For two years in a row, Philadelphia was called a “judicial hellhole” by a conservative judicial watchdog, the American Tort Reform Foundation. ATRA said that reverse-bifurcation in asbestos trials put defendants in a quandary because juries were focusing on the plaintiffs’ injuries before focusing on whether the defendants could have caused the alleged injuries and that the First Judicial District was the site of “forum shopping.” ATRA said it was mulling the removal of Philadelphia from its “hellhole” list because of an order issued by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, administrative judge of the trial division.
The order asked that lawyers for out-of-state asbestos plaintiffs file their cases in other forums in order to allow the FJD to get its asbestos case inventory back into compliance with American Bar Association standards. The order also ended reverse-bifurcation in all asbestos cases, limited pro hoc vice counsel to trying two cases a year in Philadelphia, and barred punitive damages for all mass tort cases – at least on a foreseeable basis.
Keystone Progress criticized ATRA’s report.
“Though recent reports have attempted to frame Philadelphia courts as extreme, they are actually well within the bell curve for total civil caseload in respect to population when compared to other counties,” the Keystone Progress report said.
Philadelphia dropped 40 percent in the median amounts awarded in tort trials between 2001 and 2005 according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Keystone Progress report said.
Philadelphia also ranks in the lower 30 percent of all major metropolitan areas in terms of damage amounts, the Keystone Progress report said.
Morrill said in an interview that Keystone Progress has started a new advocacy campaign regarding Pennsylvania’s courts because legal protections for the environment, consumers and women’s issues can only be protected if courts are fair.
The report on Philadelphia courts was the first part of the campaign, Morrill said.
Morrill also said that the funding for Keystone Progress’ new “Taking Back Our Courts” campaign is not funded by Pennsylvania trial lawyers, although trial lawyers did co-sponsor a Keystone Progress event a few months ago.