Off the Cuff: January 2012

Taking on Philadelphia tort law

Recently, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye and immediately brought back one of the unhappiest periods of my life in Philadelphia. There is an ugly tradition here, one that I learned about the hard way. Though when I read the Journal’s editorial—“The City of Brotherly Torts”—I learned even more about how deeply ingrained the cult of the Philadelphia Lawyer still is. We are the number one “Judicial Hellhole” in America—that’s what Philadelphia was called earlier this year by national legal reformers. And the stranglehold of our legal system is one of the reasons why Philadelphia will always be a third-rate city.

Forty years ago, Philadelphia magazine ran a piece about Atlantic City in which we named a nightclub owner who, we said, was a big-time cocaine dealer. The nightclub owner said it wasn’t true, and he sued. That’s when the nightmare began.

During the trial, I was at a party on Rittenhouse Square when a friend—who happened to be a tort lawyer—asked me about the case. I told him I thought it was going okay.

“Let me tell you something, Herb,” the lawyer confided, “you’ve already lost your case. Your case is fixed.”

Naturally, I was incredulous, and asked how he knew that with such certainty.

He looked at me as if I had so much to learn. He knew, he said, because it’s easily done here. “I fix cases all the time.”

The magazine lost the case, to the tune of $7 million. But that wasn’t the end of it. The law clerk for Bernard Snyder, the judge in the case, revealed that Snyder and the nightclub owner’s lawyer had been discussing the case privately, outside of the courtroom, throughout the trial.

Though there was no finding that the case was fixed, that breach of judicial ethics would eventually result in Snyder—who’d already been voted out as a judge—getting barred from ever running for the bench again. (Still a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia, ex-Judge Snyder popped up in the news once more last summer, when State Farm won a civil suit alleging that he conspired to pad auto accident cases with fraudulent medical records; Snyder has appealed.)

In my case, the lawsuits went back and forth for almost two decades. By the time we settled the case and retracted our allegation about the nightclub owner, the ordeal had cost millions of dollars and risked this magazine’s very survival. No wonder, then, that the Journal’s “City of Brotherly Torts” editorial got my attention.

And I also learned something else: In Pennsylvania, plaintiffs in a tort case can parachute in from anywhere in the state to seek their payday in Philadelphia. Not to mention that Philadelphia juries are notoriously friendly to anybody wanting a million bucks after catching a finger in a subway door. This city, in fact, created the first courthouse in the country designed primarily for mass tort cases, the ones involving stuff like fen-phen or asbestos contamination. It’s called the Complex Litigation Center, and it opened in 1992 with a message: Get rich in Philadelphia the old-fashioned way. Come hire a Philadelphia Lawyer.

The state legislature is now working on a bill to change that, to force tort cases to be tried in the district where the incident occurred, where the plaintiff lives, or where a corporation is headquartered. But I’m not holding my breath.

The problem with all of this isn’t that someone can get hammered by dirty lawyers and judges. The legal system is just one more reason why doing business in Philadelphia, or trying to run a medical practice here, or a newspaper, or pretty much any other enterprise, is fraught with danger.