New York City Makes “Judicial Hellholes” List, but Critics Call the Report a Tool of Big Business

The study claims that New York state’s existing laws and procedures are too pro-plaintiff, resulting in lawsuit abuse and excessive tort. The American Tort Reform Association, the organization behind the “Judicial Hellholes” list. Critics counter that the organization behind the report is a tool of corporations who don’t like being held accountable by the courts.

| 22 Dec 2023 | 02:09

New York City has once again landed on the American Tort Reform Foundation’s (ATRF) annual “Judicial Hellholes” list, ranking at No. 4 in the 2023-2024 edition. This represents the city’s latest appearance after being featured in all but one of the last fifteen editions, peaking at No. 2 in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The report highlights places where ATRF alleges courts use laws and procedures unfairly against defendants, especially in civil lawsuits.

According to New York’s Judicial Hellholes entry, the New York State Legislature’s pro-plaintiff agenda is hastening the deterioration of the city’s civil justice climate and will “further entrench New York City on the Judicial Hellholes report for years to come.”

Furthermore, the Judicial Hellholes warned, New York’s misguided laws have enabled litigants to flood an overburdened court system with complaints that also drive of premiums and hurt small businesses that run afoul of state regulations, including those that go beyond what the federal American Disabilities Act (ADA) provides. The ADA, of course, has been criticized by disability advocates for not providing enough.

Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright, representing the Upper East Side in Albany, acknowledged the costs of heavy caseloads and an understaffed judiciary, but stressed that the solution did not lie in watering down existing laws and regulations. “I co-sponsored legislation that adds additional judges to our courts with the goal of minimizing backlogs,” she said. “Yet we cannot compromise legal protections for people with disabilities, workers, seniors, and other New Yorkers.”

The report also singled out the Grieving Families Act, which would expand compensable damages to surviving family in wrongful death lawsuits and is awaiting Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature or veto. Its sponsor in the State Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman-Sigal, was blunt in his dismissal. ”I don’t think I need to dignify a report from a website called ‘Judicial Hellholes’ with a response,” he said. “The bottom line is almost every other state allows non-economic damages for wrongful death, while New York systematically devalues Black and brown lives.”

ATRF, the organization behind the report, is the research arm of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), a national coalition of companies, business organizations, and nonprofits that grew out of a joint effort by the American Council of Engineering Companies and the American Medical Association in 1986. According to its website, ATRA is a nonpartisan organization that seeks “to bring greater fairness, predictability, and efficiency to America’s civil justice system,” typically through lobbying and public communication.

To compile the Judicial Hellholes report, ATRF annually surveys ATRA members and gathers information “provided by a variety of additional sources.” But despite ATRF’s claims to credibility, critics have panned their report as a thinly-disguised tool for corporate interests seeking more favorable legal outcomes. In 2016, the American Association for Justice found that more than two dozen of ATRA’s “sources” were newswires owned by the Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest corporate lobbying group. After St. Louis landed atop the Judicial Hellholes list in the 2016-2017 edition—largely due to three different verdicts that held Johnson & Johnson responsible for selling powders that caused ovarian cancer—the St. Louis Public Radio struck back with a legal roundtable dedicated to critiquing what they called a “special interest publication.”

“This is the corporate defendants who are saying they don’t like losing so many cases,” said journalism professor and former St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer William Freivogel. “This Judicial Hellhole thing is just a very masterful corporate effort to decrease the judgments against them in places like St. Louis.”

Although ATRA calls itself a grassroots organization,the New York Law School’s Center for Justice and Democracy (CJ&D) has disputed this characterization, noting that its members are largely Fortune 500 companies with direct financial stake in restricting lawsuits. CJ&D also said of the Judicial Hellholes report that “the goal of the ‘study’ is to discredit judges and juries willing to hold reckless corporations accountable for the harm they cause.”

ATRA, for its part, seemed to hedge under pressure as early as in 2007, when they responded to criticism by the New York Times by saying that they “have never claimed to be an empirical study... It’s no more or less subjective than what appears in The New York Times.” This time, however, ATRA did not respond to requests for comment.