ATRA’s “Hellholes” Report

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The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) is one of the many corporate front groups created to help corporations avoid accountability by undermining the civil justice system.  Instead of focusing on producing safer products, these corporate front groups have waged a public relations campaign to turn Americans against the civil justice system.  It’s time to set the record straight.

ATRA is a Front Group Funded by Big Corporate CEOs

• Insurance, Pharmaceutical, and Tobacco Companies Have Funded ATRA. Corporate giants such as Altria (formerly 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 – have all supported ATRA.  Legal Times has also reported that, “most of [ATRA's] funding comes from large corporate donors. Insurance firms … are each good for $50,000 or $75,000, one unnamed lobbyist familiar with the Association told the publication.” [Gannon, “Tort Deform - Lethal Bedfellows, Essential Information,” 1995, pp. 23-25; “Proponents of Reform,” Legal Times, 4/17/95, cited in Silverstein, “Smoke & Mirrors,” Public Citizen Congress Watch, 1996, p. 11; ATRA website:]
• Polls claiming too many frivolous lawsuits were designed as part of a corporate plan to create a fake grassroots movement.  Shell corporations and “consumer groups” were created with tobacco industry money to fund polls, buy billboard ads, and hold “lawsuit abuse events.” In many cases these groups were in reality little more than phone numbers at local chambers of commerce. The first ATRA grassroots groups was created by ATRA and APCO Worldwide, the giant public relations firm created out of the law firm Arnold & Porter, and funded by the Rio Grande Chamber of Commerce and Texas corporations. [False alarm: how the media helps the insurance industry and the GOP promote the myth of America's "lawsuit crisis," Washington Monthly, October 1, 2004; Joanne Doroshow and Carl Deal, “THE CALA FILES: The Secret Campaign by Big Tobacco and Other Major Industries to Take Away Your Rights,” the Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen, July 26, 2000.]

ATRA’s Claims Do Not Reflect Reality        

Part of ATRA’s campaign to undermine the civil justice system includes polluting the airwaves with misinformation about lawsuits.  ATRA has claimed that lawsuits filed by individuals are skyrocketing, are hurting small businesses, and are clogging up our courts.  These claims are fiction.

• The number of tort (personal injury) cases has been declining for years.  According to the National Center for State Courts, tort cases accounted for just 4.4 percent of all civil cases filed in 2008, and declined by 25 percent between 1999 and 2008.  Tort filings in state courts decreased by six percent between 2007 and 2008. [National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Court Statistics Project]
• The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has repeatedly found that the number of tort cases filed is dropping in state courts.  BJS found that the number of tort trials in state courts in the nation’s 75 largest counties dropped 31.5 percent between 1996 and 2005.  The median awards in these trials dropped 18.4 percent over the same time period.  Very few tort cases are ever decided by a judge or jury, with just four percent of all tort cases being disposed by a bench or jury trial. [Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2009]
• Corporate lawsuits – not personal injury cases – are clogging our courts.  Many courts are struggling to keep up with caseloads, but 70 percent of these caseloads are contract cases, which more often involve businesses.  [National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Court Statistics Project]
• Few small businesses ranked litigation as a concern.  In the July 2011 Small Business Community Quarterly Survey produced by the US Chamber, small businesses were asked which issue in Washington poses the greatest threat to their business and only 5% said litigation.  The option “none of these” topped litigation with 18%.   []


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

Every year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) releases a new edition of its widely ridiculed and debunked “Judicial Hellholes” report.  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 and gain complete immunity for negligent corporate behavior. 

Don’t be duped: countless independent experts
have ridiculed and debunked this corporate propaganda.

Quote from 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 just another reminder of how corporations use front groups like ATRA 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.  Legal Times has also reported that, “most of ATRA's funding comes from large corporate donors. Insurance firms … are each good for $50,000 or $75,000, one unnamed lobbyist familiar with the Association told the publication.”  [“Proponents of Reform,” Legal Times, 4/17/95; ATRA website:]

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.

Here’s what the experts say about ATRA’s report:

• ATRA’s 2007 report was accurately described by the New York Times [Liptak, 12/24/2007] as having “no apparent methodology” and that “the question is whether the report’s arguments make sense . . . the report often falls short.” The 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 editions all share the same methodology and groundless arguments.
• “[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." [Thornburg, West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 110 2008]

Flaws in Past “Judicial Hellhole” Reports:

• Wrong Outcome: According to the Times-Standard, One of the 2010 Examples Was Settled Amicably.  In the 2010 report, ATRA included Humboldt County over a nursing home class action. Hellholes cites a “jaw-dropping $677 million” verdict over Skilled Healthcare’s violation of staffing hour minimums. That’s partially true; a jury did award that much in July, but Skilled Healthcare will never pay it. In September, the two sides reached a settlement of $62.8 million. This settlement was approved in Humboldt County Superior Court on December 1, 2010, in a scene the Eureka Times-Standard described as “all handshakes and smiles.” Millions of dollars from the settlement will go towards monitoring efforts to make sure that they are in compliance with staffing hours, which should significantly improve patient care.  [“Settlement in Skilled Healthcare suit approved by court; window to file a claim closes next month,” The Eureka Times-Standard (California), 12/01/10]
• Wrong State: ATRA Forced to Admit Mistake in their 2005 “Hellhole” Report.  Following the release of their 2005 “Judicial Hellhole” report, ATRA was forced to admit that they wrongly attacked the state of West Virginia for a major lawsuit that wasn’t even filed in the state.  According to the 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.  In fact, the lawsuit, which alleged that the company exposed consumers to toxic chemicals used to make their Teflon nonstick coatings, was not filed in West Virginia.  When informed of the error by a reporter from the Charleston Gazette newspaper, ATRA posted a correction admitting the mistake on its website.  However, the group refused to change West Virginia’s ranking in the report. [“Tort reform group criticizes W.Va. for Fla. Lawsuit; Score unchanged despite admission error was made,” Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), 12/15/05]
• Report and Facts Don’t Match: According to the Associated Press, the County Identified By ATRA as a Top “Judicial Hellhole” Actually Saw a “Sharp Decline” in Asbestos and Class-Action Lawsuits.  Beginning in 2002, ATRA singled-out Madison County, Illinois, for being one of the worst of these “hellholes” in America.  However, according to the Associated Press, Madison County actually experienced a sharp decline in both asbestos and class-action lawsuits. [ATRA website,; “Lawsuits fall in Madison City,” Associated Press, 12/28/04]
• The Cases Aren’t There: One of ATRA’s Top “Judicial Hellholes” Had Only Four Medical Malpractice Verdicts Favoring Plaintiffs Between 1996 and 2003.  The Belleville News-Democrat reported that 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, 7/18/04]
• It Doesn’t Make Sense: West Virginia has climbed up ATRA’s rankings despite enacting tort reform.  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.

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