Fight over “judicial hellhole” brewing in Legislature

One of the most significant battles in the upcoming legislative session will be over legal reform in West Virginia. Republicans and business interests have been pushing that agenda for years, but now they finally have a majority in the legislature to make it happen.

Incoming Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer) said recently on Talkline all you need to know about his position. He told me he agreed with the assessment that West Virginia is a “judicial hellhole” and he promised that tort reform would be the top of the GOP agenda in January.

The struggle over whether West Virginia should have judicial reform will take place on several levels.

The organization Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has generated a high profile campaign for years identifying West Virginia as a trial lawyer’s gold mine where “jackpot justice” is discouraging business. This past week, CALA issued its most recent report.

“West Virginia’s legal system is once again ranked a ‘Judicial Hellhole’ according to the American Tort Reform Association, which released it’s annual legal rankings today. This year West Virginia moved up the list to number three on the ‘Judicial Hellholes’ rankings,” said a CALA release.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia Association for Justice—the state’s trial attorneys—continue to fume over what they say is CALAs false representation of the state’s justice system. Organization President Anthony Majestro, appearing on a recent Talkline, picked apart CALA’s allegations point by point.

However, the trial lawyers have a serious problem here. The perception of the state as a “judicial hellhole” has already been established. The West Virginia Association for Justice’s understated response over the years let CALA set the agenda.

The trial bar has failed to explain to West Virginians why it is in their interest to hold insurance companies and corporations accountable.

The advocates for reform—CALA, the state Chamber of Commerce, Republican leaders—are reportedly going to tackle the issue this session with not one, but rather a series of bills attacking different aspects of the civil justice system, such as an intermediate appeals court and damage caps.
The trial bar has enough influential members that it can, if it chooses, work the halls of the capitol and lobby individual lawmakers to try to slow the tort reform train. The public perception of the trial attorneys may be the larger problem. How do they convince the public that West Virginia is not a “judicial hellhole.”

For that challenge, they need a savvy public relations campaign, not a lawyerly response.

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