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Trial attorneys reject ‘judicial hellhole’ label

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – During Tuesday night’s State of the State address from Gov. Eric Greitens, the governor used the term “judicial hellhole” to describe the state of Missouri’s litigation system.

“This isn’t a pretty picture,” he said. “Out-of-state lawyers are suing businesses on behalf of out-of-state clients in Missouri’s courts. We’re the place where the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty, and engage in lawsuits so murky, they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else.”

The label, Greitens argues, gives businesses pause about expanding into Missouri knowing they could face more lawsuits and spend more money defending against them.

“The companies intimidated by this shady practice have customers here,” Greitens continued. “They could make even more money here. But they’re afraid to expand their business here.”

The Dec. 2016 report from the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) labelled the city of St. Louis as the single worst place in the nation for litigation, and Republicans have cited it as evidence of the need for litigation reform, especially regarding the adoption of new expert witness testimony standards and a change in Missouri’s collateral source rule. Bills in both the House and Senate on both subjects have already moved through committee and are expected to be priority legislation.

However, not everyone agrees with the “judicial hellhole” label, especially the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA). Their primary opposition to the moniker comes from the source of the report: the ATRA.

The study itself lacks specifics on its methodology to determine how Missouri and other states compare with each other on and its scientific validity is in doubt. A New York Times report from 2007 expanded on this idea by emphasizing that even a spokesman for ATRA said the study was not scientific.

“We have never claimed to be an empirical study,” he told the New York Times. “It’s not a batting average or a slugging percentage. It’s no more or less subjective than what appears in The New York Times.”

Rep. Gina Mitten expounded on this notion during a House hearing by asking Rep. Kevin Corlew if that study could stand up to scrutiny under the standards of his expert witnesses bill after he mentioned the report in his testimony.

For MATA and other like groups, accepting the study represents an appeal to corporate interests that can harm people who have legitimate claims against parties causing injuries. Many of ATRA’s members are large businesses and corporations, like Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, MetLife, Shell and hundreds of others.

“The report’s only goal is to create panic among legislators and induce them to act against the well-being of the citizens they serve,” MATA President Jay Benson added in a statement. “For any lawmaker to fall for it and act on this information is counter-intuitive to the oath they’ve taken to uphold the Missouri Constitution, which clearly spells out that “the right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”

However, for those concerned about Missouri’s economy, having those associations with businesses is not necessarily a problem. If anything, it shows businesses support the reforms ATRA advocates for, and supporters of these bills note that favorable environment could bring more private sector investment into the state. It also explains why the Missouri Chamber of Commerce has supported such tort reform measures so fervently, which has backed Greitens’ and the Republican caucus’ designs for a new economic environment in the state.

“We support him in the difficult task of balancing the budget, standing up to unions and trial attorneys and finding common ground and consensus on difficult issues such as economic and workforce development,” Missouri Chamber President Dan Mehan said in a statement after last night’s speech.