New Group Works to Bring Balance to Pennsylvania’s Civil Justice System

In another year of flipping the couch cushions for spare change to balance a state budget, efforts to reduce lawsuit abuse are more important than ever. These needed reforms can greatly enhance Pennsylvania’s business competitiveness without costing the commonwealth a single dime.

A newly formed group, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform (PCCJR), will pull the curtain back to expose the many ways the law and judicial procedure are being exploited to bully and extort individuals, businesses, and health care professionals and institutions with excessive legal action. Likewise, PCCJR will fight for reforms to allow Pennsylvania to compete for business investment currently lost due to our unfavorable legal climate.

Former State Rep. Curt Schroder (R-Chester), executive director of the new bipartisan group, said that demonstrating to lawmakers, the media, and the general public the extent of the economic damage of lawsuit abuse in higher costs for products, services, and lost opportunities will produce benefits across the board: help bring balance back into a civil justice system now inordinately weighted on the side of a few who understand how to game the system for their benefit; ensure that those with legitimate claims are justly compensated.

“Education is a key part of the effort towards bringing a sense of fairness back to our civil justice system,” Schroder said. “And will help us enact reforms in the law and in civil procedure that will benefit all Pennsylvanians by attracting jobs and helping ensure affordable access to health care.”

Schroder has been an advocate for victims of lawsuit abuse nearly his entire professional life. As a private-practice attorney, he witnessed countless instances of fraud and abuse in the Philadelphia court system. Then as a state House member, he was one of leading advocates for medical malpractice reform. He also led the fight for a recent, significant reform in the system: the 2011 law that eliminated the lopsided doctrine of joint-and-several liability, where a deep pocket party in a liability suit could be tagged for 100 percent of the award despite minimal blame for the injury. Under the Fair Share Act signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett, someone who is responsible for a harm (less than 60%) now pays a percentage of damages equal to their percentage of responsibility for the harm done.

“I was picked by Speaker Turzai to lead the floor fight (on the Fair Share Act) because as an attorney, and with my experience working against abuse in the law, I can speak the language,” Schroder said. 

On the legislative front, Schroder says the PCCJR will prioritize measures that will bring needed changes in the law. Almost certain to make the list is one already being circulated in the new legislative session by Rep. Warren Kampf (R-Chester) that would require transparency in a compensation system designed for victims of the lethal lung disease mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos fibers. Abuse of the asbestos compensation system has become a distinctive, if tragic, illustration of the need for reform. Claimants’ lawyers, representing those allegedly injured by asbestos exposure, are double dipping by seeking claims in trusts established to compensate those injured and then again in the courts, where they are not required to reveal awards from the trusts. The real tragedy is that, just as with other instances of lawsuit abuse, less remains for those who truly deserve the awards.

For budget-strapped Pennsylvania, enacting a law that will help the state recoup millions from fraudulent government contractors is as seductive as it is logical. But closer examination of the promise of a windfall for the state through such a law, a False Claims Act, shows the real winners would be the ones lobbying for its enactment – the trial lawyers.

The trial lawyers are manipulating False Claims Acts on the federal level and where it’s been enacted in other states by seeking whistleblowers – it used to be the other way around – to file already manufactured cases against government contractors. In some instances, the alleged infractions against the contractors amount to little more than procedural errors. The companies almost always settle because losing the fight in court could bar the business from any future work with the government.

Other potential reforms that deserve to make the legislative priority list: establishing a limit on the useful life of consumer goods; enacting additional medical malpractice reforms; eliminating “venue shopping” where attorneys seek the judges and courts most sympathetic to their clients’ alleged injuries; limiting liability for businesses that unknowingly sell a defective product they did not manufacture or design; enacting reasonable caps on attorneys’ fees and punitive damages in liability cases; among many others.

“The PCCJR is a very welcome ally in our fight to improve Pennsylvania’s economic competitiveness,” said PMA President David N. Taylor. “For too long, the litigation industry has been a drag on the well-being of Pennsylvania’s citizens.  PMA is proud to support the new Coalition for Civil Justice Reform and we will work with our coalition partners to enact these common-sense reforms, many of which are standard practice in competitor states.”

In the fight, Pennsylvania is playing catch up with other states, as shown in comparative rankings.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform ranks Pennsylvania's civil justice system a disappointing 37th-best in the nation. 

And the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) put Pennsylvania on its “Judicial Hellholes Watch List,” citing an unfair legal climate in the Philadelphia and Allegheny County courts.

“Some of the state’s economic sluggishness can fairly be attributed to the gnawing parasitism of an aggressive personal injury bar that undermines both economic growth and job creation with its steady onslaught of lawsuits -- particularly those filed in Philadelphia’s and Pittsburgh’s plaintiff-friendly courts,” said ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney. “Which is why it’s so important for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform to have new leadership from such an experienced and capable reformer as Curt Schroder.  Working with businesses, labor, healthcare providers and others, ATRA is confident that Curt and the coalition will effectively educate the public and policymakers about the need for reasonable limits on civil liability, and thereby help boost the economic prospects for everyone in the state.”      

The PCCJR will be fighting against an entrenched special interest with deep influence in the legislature and the courts. Perhaps the most recent, vivid example of the power of the trial bar showed in the 2015 Supreme Court elections, one of the most expensive judicial races in U.S. history, where their full slate of candidates was swept into office. With Curt Schroder heading the PCCJR, the fight is engaged by someone who can speak their language.