Is Baltimore a Judicial Hellhole?
Baltimore is "teetering along the edge of a hellhole" because of its hospitable climate for personal injury lawsuits, according to a new study from the American Tort Reform Foundation.
If you are a lawyer handling medical malpractice, accident or products liability cases in Baltimore, this comes a little out of left field because while Baltimore is considered a more reasonable jurisdiction than most in Maryland to try personal injury cases, Baltimore plaintiffs’ lawyers hardly see Baltimore as a personal injury utopia. Baltimore makes up a large portion of personal injury cases cases in Maryland, which has a median jury verdict in personal injury cases is $12,813. In contrast, the median jury verdict in New York in personal injury cases is $287,628. There are a number of systemic reasons for this difference that have nothing to do with the judges or the juries in Maryland and New York. But still. Baltimore injury lawyers just don't have the impression that Baltimore has runaway juries. Is it a reasonable jurisdiction? Yes, particularly compared to many jurisdictions in Maryland. It is a personal injury lawyer's dream? Not by a long shot. But Baltimore’s place in the report is not based on malpractice, accident or products cases but on two specific types of cases: asbestos and lead paint.
But this is not because of judges or juries in Baltimore. It is because it is – and even more so, was – a blue collar town with a lot of workers who had exposure to asbestos. I realize some people find it frustrating that personal injury lawyers handling these cases ended up with “buy a baseball team” money. This American Tort Reform report plays to this sentiment, calling Baltimore “a welcoming host to a disproportionate share” of asbestos lawsuits and singled out Baltimore Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, calling him an "all-star plaintiffs' attorney with a specialty in asbestos cases." (Somehow, I doubt Angelos takes offense to this.)
I don’t think anyone other than a personal injury lawyer gets excited about a personal injury lawyer making billions of dollars in legal fees. But the reality is that the asbestos litigation was a once in a generation disaster. And Baltimore became a hotbed because of the industries we have here. The abject suffering caused by mesothelioma from asbestos has been lost in all of the attention being paid to the litigation.
Baltimore was also in a unique position on lead paint cases because Baltimore public officials got us out in front of the lead paint problem by testing kids much earlier than other cities which provided the data for lead paint lawyers in Baltimore to secure expert opinions. This means they were able to file a large number of cases before the insurance companies got wise and started putting lead paint exclusions in their insurance polices with landlords. Sure, there have been a number of good lead paint verdicts – including the $5.7 million verdict mentioned in the American Tort Reform report. But, look, trying a case on behalf of a brain injured child against a slum landlord is like shooting fish in a barrel. Moreover, the report neglects to mention that the jury’s award was cut to less that $1.3 million because of the caps on non-economic damages in Maryland.
The truth is that lead paint verdicts against defendants could have been a lot higher. When I was defending these cases in the 90s, plaintiffs’ lead paint lawyers were not seeking significant non-economic damages in lead paint cases. There were no economists or anyone else explaining the predicted lost earnings in lead paint cases. (Arguably, the failure to do so was legal malpractice.) Instead, they just sought medical bills and the cap on non-economic damages.
Nationally, West Virginia reclaims the #1 ranking this year as the most pro-plaintiff jurisdiction, followed by south Florida (Broward County primarily), Cook County, Illinois (everyone’s favorite historical target for just about everything), Los Angeles, Montgomery County and Macon County in Alabama and Clark County, Nevada. Also on the list was Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Incredibly, I did not find a “jackpot justice” joke in the report.)
Also joining Baltimore on the list of those states approaching the status of a judicial hellhole was Rio Grande Valley & Gulf Coast of Texas, Madison County, Illinois, St. Louis and Jackson County in Missouri.
(Apropos to nothing – and I hesitate to raise the issue because I don’t think likeminded people are going to agree with me - the American Tort Reform Association has chosen “judicial hellholes” to describe the judicial climate in these areas. I’m hard to offend but they are using the word “hellholes.”’ If I heard someone use this term orally in an interview or something, I would think nothing of it. But using this term in writing as the underlying theme of a report just seems over-the-top to me. )