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The American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF) is a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, founded in 1997. The Foundation says its primary function 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 public and private sectors.

The Foundation issued its annual Judicial Hellholes® report this month, naming civil courts in California, Louisiana, New York City, West Virginia, Southwestern Illinois’ Madison and St. Clair counties, and South Florida among the nation’s “most unfair.”   According to the report, California was ranked as number 1 in the nation.   ATRF president Tiger Joyce also said that “this year’s report also identifies 10 marginally less problematic jurisdictions on the ‘Watch List,’ along with some particularly bad court decisions we call ‘Dishonorable Mentions.'” The Report says that California remains ignominiously atop the Judicial Hellholes list for a second consecutive year.

The Report goes on to say that California’s addiction to lawsuits claims average residents as victims, too. The California litigation system effectively imposed a $33.5 billion hidden tax – or $883 per resident – just for the costs of lawsuits settled thus far in 2013, reported Orange County Register columnist Joseph Perkins. “Most California residents are blissfully unaware of the tremendous toll lawsuit abuse has on the state,” he observed.  Perkins pins California’s poor reputation, in part, on former class-action kingpin Bill Lerach, whose seaside La Jolla Farms mansion and revoked bar membership are testimony to both the profitability and unscrupulousness of California’s lawsuit industry. Lerach shows no remorse after pleading guilty for his role in concealing lucrative kickbacks that his former law firm gave to individuals for serving as on-call plaintiffs in its storied securities litigation racket. He told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m proud of the work we did,” even after he was disbarred, sentenced to two years in prison, and ordered to pay an $8 million penalty.

The Report cites current litigation trends in the state. Over the past two years, plaintiffs’ lawyers have filed a surge of consumer class actions targeting what they have labeled as “Big Food.” Some of these claims are brought by veterans of lawsuits against the tobacco industry who are looking for the next deep pocket to sue. About a dozen plaintiffs’ law firms have taken to the courts with gusto, filing about 75 class action lawsuits between them in the past few years. By one count, which includes filings from additional firms, more than 100 consumer class actions were filed against food makers in 2012 alone, five times the number filed four years earlier. Rarely has there been a week in 2013 without a report of another class action filed against a food maker. In some instances, the lawyers bringing the cases do not even bother to find new clients – they recycle the same individuals as lead plaintiffs, over and over again, in lawsuits involving different manufacturers and products. California is the epicenter of this litigation due to its plaintiff-friendly consumer laws, large population, and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s growing reputation for receptivity to such claims. Some also point to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ willingness both to uphold questionable class certifications and be quite lenient when it comes to requiring consumers to show they actually relied on allegedly misleading conduct when deciding to purchase a given product. The Northern District of California, located in San Francisco, has earned the derisive moniker of “the food court,” since it hosts more food-marketing and food- labeling lawsuits than any other federal court.

For example, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed several cases over the past 15 months against companies like Chobani, Trader Joe’s and WhiteWave, which sells Horizon Organic dairy products and Silk brand products. These lawsuits claim that the companies use the term “evaporated cane juice” instead of “dried sugar cane syrup” or “sugar” to make consumers believe that there is no sugar in their product. As pointed out by WhiteWave, “evaporated cane juice was not controversial until this recent tsunami of lawsuits was filed.” An average consumer should not be surprised that cane means sugar.

Another trend – Lawsuits brought ostensibly to enforce technical standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in California reached an all-time high in 2012, making small business owners feel as though they have targets on their backs. In response to the crisis, Sacramento lawmakers enacted S.B. 1186 in September of 2012. Unfortunately, prior to final passage, the bill was stripped of a key provision requiring an attorney to notify a business owner of a violation at least 30 days prior to filing a claim so as to provide the business an opportunity to address the issue. California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse called the compromise measure the “most serious attempt at ADA litigation reform to ever come out of the Legislature,” but added that it “does not go as far as we would have preferred.”  Taxpayers in Torrance, California, are now on the hook for at least $75,000 in legal costs, as the town fights a lawsuit challenging the accessibility of a city-owned parking lot. The lawsuit also targeted a popular Italian restaurant and a family-owned bakery that use the lot, even though the businesses have no control over it. That case was filed by a man responsible for filing hundreds of lawsuits in Los Angeles County alone. The plaintiff, Jon Carpenter, is a Los Angeles resident, but is represented by a San Diego law firm that calls itself the Center for Disability Access.

As noted in previous Judicial Hellholes reports, there has been in recent years a steady migration of asbestos lawyers to California from states that, unlike California, have enacted reasonable civil justice reform laws to give asbestos defendants a fairer shake in court. Many of these transplants hail from reform-minded Texas, for example, and have eagerly opened offices in California, particularly in Los Angeles, where more plaintiff-friendly tort law, court procedures and juries give them a sizeable advantage over asbestos defendants.