Don’t Be Duped by ATRA’s “Hellholes” Report

Every year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) releases a new edition of its “Judicial Hellholes” report. As you can see below, this has been widely ridiculed and debunked. The effort serves as an early holiday present for the insurance, tobacco, and drug companies that bankroll ATRA’s efforts to attack the civil justice system in order to avoid accountability for negligent corporate behavior. 

Quote from American Association for Justice (AAJ) Director of Communications, Michelle Kimmel:

ATRA continues to produce the same stale, ridiculed and debunked report year after year.  Don’t be duped – this project is nothing more than propaganda paid for by multinational corporations that want to evade accountability for harming and killing Americans.

The report is another reminder of how corporations use front groups to undermine the civil justice system. ATRA has been funded by corporate giants such as Philip Morris, Dow Chemical, Exxon, General Electric, Aetna, Geico, State Farm, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Nationwide – a “who’s who” of corporations with the most to gain by shutting the courthouse doors on consumers. 

Previous reports have been heavily criticized for containing numerous errors, lacking any methodology whatsoever, and serving as a lowly tactic to scare and dupe the public.

What the Experts Say:

  • ATRA’s 2007 report was described by The New York Times as having “no apparent methodology” and that “the question is whether the report’s arguments make sense . . . the report often falls short.” The 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 editions share the same methodology and groundless arguments.  [The New York Times, 12/24/2007]
  • “[T]he point of the hellhole campaign is not to create an accurate snapshot of reality. The point of the hellhole campaign is to motivate legislators and judges to make law that will favor repeat corporate defendants and their insurers, and to spur voters to vote for those judges and legislators who will do so."  [West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 110 2008]

Flaws in Past Reports:

  • Wrong Outcome: In the 2010 report, ATRA included Humboldt County, California over a nursing home class action. “Hellholes” cites a “jaw-dropping $677 million” verdict. That’s partially true; a jury did award that much in July 2010, but Skilled Healthcare will never pay it. In September 2010, the two sides reached a settlement of $62.8 million. This settlement was approved on December 1, 2010, in a scene described in the news as “all handshakes and smiles.” Millions of dollars from the settlement went towards patient safety efforts.  [The Eureka Times-Standard (California), 12/1/2010]
  • Wrong State: According to the 2005 report, West Virginia’s ranking as the third worst “hellhole” in America was based, in part, because of a lawsuit against the DuPont chemical company that was supposedly filed in the state. However, the lawsuit, which alleged that the company exposed consumers to toxic chemicals, was not even filed in West Virginia.  When informed of the error by a reporter, ATRA posted a correction on its website, but refused to change West Virginia’s ranking. [Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), 12/15/2005]
  • Report and Facts Don’t Match: Beginning in 2002, ATRA singled-out Madison County, Illinois, for being one of the worst of these “hellholes” in America.  However, Madison County actually experienced a sharp decline in both asbestos and class-action lawsuits.  [Associated Press, 12/28/2004]
  • The Cases Aren’t There: Between 1996 and 2003, Madison County, Illinois – one of ATRA’s top “judicial hellholes” – had only eleven medical malpractice and wrongful death cases that resulted in verdicts.  Of these eleven verdicts, four favored plaintiffs. Moreover, only one of these pro-plaintiff verdicts exceeded $1 million.  [Belleville News-Democrat, 7/18/2004]
  • It Doesn’t Make Sense: In 2002, West Virginia was not even on ATRA’s list, in 2003 the state was ranked fourth, in 2004 and 2005 the state had climbed to third and in 2006 the entire state was ranked first.  During this time, West Virginia passed caps on medical malpractice damages, elimination of third party bad faith, and significantly changed workers’ compensation and joint and several rules.