Time to Close Philadelphia’s Mass Tort Complex

By Tiger Joyce and Curt Schroder

Philadelphia long has held the infamous title of “Judicial Hellhole” due to its courts’ reputations for luring out-of-state plaintiffs and opportunistic lawyers who file lawsuits and win large settlements.

That reputation largely is due to Philly’s Complex Litigation Center (CLC), created in 1992 to handle complex mass tort cases. The CLC, while criticized for its slow-moving litigation and high costs to the system, quickly became a magnet for trial lawyers nationwide who flocked to Philadelphia with hopes of scoring a nuclear verdict.

However, recent court data reveals that the Center’s dominant mass tort program is dwindling — the CLC’s case docket decreased 60 percent since 2020. The Risperdal litigation alone accounted for a staggering 6,912 cases in 2019. But the volume of these cases sits at fewer than 330 today.

This astounding reduction forces the question: is it time to close Philadelphia’s CLC altogether? Closure would re-focus court resources more effectively on matters relevant to local taxpayers and send a clear message to out-of-state trial lawyers that Philadelphia is no longer the preferred destination for “litigation tourism.”

While medical malpractices cases increased nearly 50 percent above previous years due the state Supreme Court eliminating the venue rule, closing the CLC would help make room for these cases as well.

To be clear, closing Philadelphia’s mass tort complex wouldn’t impact those with legitimate claims. Instead, it would restore balance and ensure cases are heard in venues where they have the strongest connections to the parties involved, while preventing abuse of our legal system for the personal gain of a few.

It’s worth pointing out past efforts to reform the CLC. In a letter to the American Tort Reform Foundation a decade ago, Administrative Judge of the Trial Division of the First Judicial District of the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, John W. Herron expressed his appreciation when ATRF moved Philadelphia off the Judicial Hellholes list to the Watch List after the court made improvements under his leadership.

Sadly, however, those improvements were short-lived. Not long after Judge Herron sent his letter and later departed from his position, the CLC completely reverted into full litigation tourism mode.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rocketed to the top of the 2019-2020 Judicial Hellholes list after an outrageous $8 billion verdict awarded in a single-plaintiff Risperdal case. The plaintiff in that case was from Maryland, where in 2016 he was already awarded $680,000 in compensatory damages.

Although the verdict against Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals was later reduced to $6.8 million, the CLC was back to its old business. And the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did little to constrain this abuse, as evidenced by its refusal to review a $70 million verdict awarded to a Tennessee plaintiff who filed his lawsuit in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.

Such blatant forum shopping undermines the very foundations of justice and fairness, resulting in imbalanced outcomes and excessive damages.

While these abuses erode trust in our legal system, they also hamper economic growth. A study by the Perryman Group found, on average, every Pennsylvania resident pays more than $1,391 every year in a “tort tax” due to excessive tort costs in the Keystone State.

The simple fact is that the Philadelphia’s CLC is a Judicial Hellhole that should be shut down. It has drained resources from the city’s court system and discouraged business growth for too long.

Closing the CLC would be a positive step toward breaking free from the cycle of litigation tourism while beginning to establish a reputation as a city that values fairness and integrity. It would also show that Pennsylvania may be ready to uphold the principles of justice and discourage forum shopping.

Achieving this will require strong leadership and a commitment from lawmakers, judges, and citizens alike. It is time to take a stand and restore confidence in Pennsylvania’s legal systems. Let us close the doors of the mass tort complex and open the doors to a fairer, more balanced future.

Tiger Joyce is president of the American Tort Reform Association. Curt Schroder is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform.