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Nancy Smith

Florida Supreme Court Named Nation's 4th Worst 'Judicial Hellhole'

January 8, 2015 - 6:00pm

The controversial Florida Supreme Court managed to score fourth on the American Tort Reform Foundation's 2014-2015 list of "Judicial Hellholes" -- putting it among the nations most unfair courts in the handling of civil litigation.

According to the annual ATR list and report, issued with little fanfare just before Christmas, the only judicial hellholes ranked worse than the Florida Supreme Court were 1) New York City's Asbestos Court, 2) California, and 3) the West Virginia Supreme Court.

American Tort Reform Association President Tiger Joyce, in his explanation of the report, said, With both this annual report and a year-round website, our Judicial Hellholes program since 2002 has been documenting developments in jurisdictions where civil court judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally to the disadvantage of defendants.

Noted Joyce, "Our latest report is also quite critical of three state supreme courts, in West Virginia, Florida and Missouri (No. 6 on the list), all of which this year continued their respectively stubborn habits of expanding liability and showing disdain for the legislative and executive branches, to say nothing of the voters will."

According to the report, the Florida Supreme Court has played a key role in generating the Sunshine States reputation for an unfair civil justice system, which manifests itself most plainly in South Florida.

Over the years the high court has issued a torrent of liability-expanding decisions, many over vigorous dissents, according to the report. The Legislature has overturned several of these decisions, restoring balance, but the high court often has the last word on such reforms.

"In what may be the most blatant act of judicial nullification in history," claims the report, "the Florida Supreme Court invalidated a law intended to ensure access to healthcare in the state by limiting subjective damages for pain and suffering in medical liability lawsuits. Justices of the high court ignored the wisdom of the Legislature and governor, and imposed their own views on the need for and effectiveness of such a damages limit."

The report makes a point of trotting out the Supreme Court's repeated and consistent rulings in favor of expanding liability, providing plaintiffs with procedural advantages over defendants in litigation, and "showing a lack of deference' to the Legislatures role in determining public policy.

Virtually everyone in Florida, it claims, "from neighborhood grocers and family physicians to local government service providers and parents trying to makedecisions about their childrens sporting activities - has felt the impact."

The report lists these Florida Supreme Court actions since 2000 as egregious:

  • Blindfolded juries to the fault of drunk drivers in accidents underlying lawsuits alleging carmakers could have better designed their vehicles to prevent injuries.
  • Exposed supermarkets and retailers to liability for slip-and-falls even when they were not aware of hazards that allegedly caused falls and could not have reasonably found and addressed them.
  • Placed broad new liability on streetlight maintenance companies when anyone is hurt in an accident while a streetlight is out.
  • Allowed manipulative plaintiffs lawyers to create bad faith lawsuits against insurers who, in good faith, attempt to pay a claim.
  • Exposed local governments to greater tort liability by imposing duty to protect against natural hazards, such as rip currents on Florida beaches.
  • Turned the state into the epicenter for smoking lawsuits by relieving individual plaintiffs of their typical burden of proof.
  • Adopted a lax standard for expert testimony, allowing admission of junk science that would be rejected by federal courts and most state courts.
  • Took away the ability of parents to sign a waiver of liability so that their child can participate in activities that have risks of injury.
  • Disregarded a law that had successfully reduced insurance rates for Florida businesses by constraining attorneys fees in workers compensation cases.
  • Expanded tort liability despite parties entering a contract to govern remedies.
  • Prohibited insurers from using a fee schedule to determine the reasonable value of medical services unless the schedule is specifically referenced in the policy.
  • Voided a contract between doctor and patient that provided for arbitration of medical malpractice claims and limited non-economic damages.

In the year ahead, the Florida high court is expected to consider whether it will follow or ignore the Legislatures decision to replace Floridas anything-goes standard for admissibility of expert testimony with the more rigorous standard applied by federal and most state courts.

The Florida Supreme Court's dubious honor follows South Florida's appearance on the list last year. South Florida came in at No. 6 on the "Judicial Hellholes" list.

The 29-year-old American Tort Reform Association is the only national organization exclusively dedicated to reforming the civil justice system. With a nationwide network of state-based liability reform coalitions backed by 135,000 grassroots supporters, it claims "an unparalleled track record of legislative success."

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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