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Florida no longer a ‘judicial hellhole’ but tort reform still an urgency, group says

By John Haughey | The Center Square | December 9, 2020

Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, Fla.

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(The Center Square) – Florida is not among the nation’s top “judicial hellholes” for the second consecutive year, according to annual rankings of court systems by the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF).

“Florida continued to make progress towards improving its legal climate in 2020 as a direct result of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ thoughtful and decisive leadership, as he continued to remake the Florida Supreme Court through two additional appointments,” ATRF wrote in its 2020-21 Judicial Hellhole Report released Tuesday.

Florida routinely placed in ATRF’s yearly ranking in the years after it was established in 2002, ascending to No. 1 in 2018.

It fell out the rankings in 2019 because of DeSantis’ Supreme Court appointments and state lawmakers adopting a bill to reform the state’s assignment of benefits (AOB) insurance law – after seven years of failed attempts – designed to slash excessive litigation.

Florida lawmakers, however, made little progress in 2020 addressing the state’s tort laws, ATRF maintains, and, therefore, it remains on its “watch list” because of an “aggressive personal injury bar and fraudulent, abusive litigation practices.”

“Florida appears to be a tale of two stories,” ATRF said, citing “bad faith laws, ‘no-fault’ personal injury protections and skyrocketing attorneys’ fees” among abuses still perpetuated in Florida.

The watch list also includes Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia and the Montana Supreme Court.

The full 2020-21 Judicial Hellholes rankings were:

1. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

2. New York City

3. California

4. South Carolina’s asbestos litigation

5. Louisiana

6. Georgia

7. City of St. Louis

8. Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois

9. Minnesota

The ATRF praised DeSantis for replacing “three retiring activist justices with three textualists, Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck, and Carlos Muñiz. They joined historically conservative justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, and Alan Lawson, leading political observers to call the court the 'most conservative Florida Supreme Court in decades.’ ”

After President Donald Trump appointed Lagoa and Luck to the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals, DeSantis “hit two home runs with … appointments of John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans, two justices who have proven to be restrained in their approach to their role as a judge. Based on his phenomenal selections thus far, reformers can no doubt look forward to more stalwart appointments throughout the judiciary as they become available.”

ATRF said Florida, however, still has “rampant lawsuit abuse,” especially in south Florida, which will be aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic because lawmakers did not meet in a special session to grant businesses and employers liability protections.

“Florida is one of the states hit hardest by COVID-19, and the repercussions of the virus are amplified by the Legislature’s inaction in protecting small businesses and curbing lawsuit abuse,” ATRF President Tiger Joyce said. “Especially in south Florida, out-of-control legal advertising and trial attorney abuse of ‘letters of protection,’ bad faith laws, and assignment of benefits threaten to set back any progress made in cleaning up Florida’s courts.”

ATRF called on state lawmakers to address “bad faith lawsuits,” “multiplying attorney fees,” “inflated awards” in medical malpractice suits and the state’s no-fault personal injury auto insurance system in 2021.

The Florida Justice Association, the state’s advocacy group for trial lawyers, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large responded with a tweet that praised DeSantis and the report.

“Under Gov. DeSantis, [Florida's] legal environment is now making national headlines for the right reasons,” Large wrote. “Gov. DeSantis was spot on when he said that [Florida's] legal system should compensate real injuries and resolve real disputes, and not be used as a game.”