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Opinion

Georgia tops ‘judicial hellhole’ ranking as juries go nuclear


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jan. 23, 2023 - 3:36 PM

Georgia tops ‘judicial hellhole’ ranking as juries go nuclear

The Newnan Times-Herald

Georgia policymakers never shy away from mentioning that Area Development Magazine has ranked the Peach State the best place to do business nine years running, and they have bragged about Georgia being the first state to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdowns.

While the past few gubernatorial administrations have labored to foster a thriving business environment and ensure that Georgia is one of the top states according to numerous metrics, Georgia recently received a dubious honor. The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) named Georgia the number one judicial hellhole.

I wrote about the problems with Georgia’s tort system last January and highlighted cases with excessive nuclear verdicts—verdicts of $10 million or more—and questionable liability claims. Six Flags was hit with a judgment of over $30 million after a young man was attacked at a bus stop outside the park, and Kroger was tagged with paying upwards of $70 million after a veteran was shot in an Atlanta Kroger parking lot.

I am not claiming that victims and their families do not deserve justice and compensation. However, these are massive and questionable verdicts, given that neither company committed the offenses and the crimes occurred outside of Six Flags and the Kroger store.

One of the more recent nuclear Georgia verdicts exemplifies the flaws within our judicial system. “A Gwinnett County jury unanimously imposed a $1.7 billion verdict, the largest in state history, against Ford Motor Co.,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

The case centered around a couple who tragically died in an accident when their Ford truck rolled over. Yet a third party had installed the wrong size tires on the vehicle causing the accident, and Ford’s attorneys assert that they were “unable to sufficiently show other factors at trial that could have contributed to the fatalities, including its contention that the occupants were not correctly wearing their seat belts,” according to Yahoo! News.

Despite these facts, the jury held Ford responsible for the lion’s share of the judgment because they found their truck roofs too weak—a notion that Ford disputes. Historically speaking, these kinds of judgments aren’t normal, but they are fast becoming so and growing larger in Georgia and around the country.

As I wrote last year, “trucking accident cases worth over $1 million increased tenfold from 2010-2018 with the average payout now being around $22.3 million; and one insurer announced that they’ve witnessed the number of $10 million or more medical malpractice verdicts tripling in three short years.”

Georgia has been one of the top producers of nuclear verdicts. Peach State juries handed down 53 of them between 2010 and 2019—adding up to more than $3 billion. Everyday Georgians should care about this, because they ultimately help bankroll these payouts that cause a rise in the price of goods and services, also known as social inflation.

“Lawsuit abuse and excessive tort costs wipe out billions of dollars of economic activity annually. Georgia residents pay a ‘tort tax’ of $1,111.28 per person and 117,809 jobs are lost each year,” reports ATRA. “If Georgia enacted specific reforms targeting lawsuit abuse, the state would increase its gross product by over $11.9 billion.”

Reining in lawsuit abuse and social inflation is a Herculean task, but lawmakers can start by curtailing the use of anchoring. It is the process by which plaintiff attorneys ask juries for judgments that are far beyond what have normally been considered reasonable.

This induces jurors to believe that such payouts are the norm—leading to larger judgments. The New York Law Journal found that anchoring leads to more than 80 percent inflation over what courts have determined reasonable compensation.

To ensure a fairer system, lawmakers should also tighten up civil liability law and repeal the seat belt gag rule. The latter prohibits juries from considering whether plaintiffs were wearing seat belts when determining judgments, but this makes little sense.

It’s required by law that all persons in the front seat wear their safety belt, and failure to do so is often a central factor contributing to the severity of vehicle accident injuries and deaths. Juries ought to know this information in order to deliver reasonable judgements.

My heart goes out to victims and their families, who certainly deserve their day in court. But the system must be fair for both defendants and plaintiffs. Georgia’s status as the number one judicial hellhole and the social inflation hitting Georgians’ bottom lines is evidence that something is amiss.

Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.