Survey Ranks Best and Worst State Lawsuit Systems

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

( - Delaware still has the best legal climate in the country, and West Virginia remains the worst, according to an annual assessment of state liability systems released Wednesday by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR).

The survey was conducted by the market research firm Harris Interactive, which has done annual surveys of this kind for the past seven years. In that time frame, there has been an overall improvement in states' legal climates, the survey found.

"We've been telling state policymakers for seven years now that they need to improve their state's lawsuit system in order to attract new business and grow jobs and, at least in some states, the message appears to be getting through," said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "But some states are learning that changing the law isn't enough -- they also need to make sure their courts correctly apply the law."

Harris asked 957 senior attorneys to evaluate up to five states in which they were "very" or "somewhat familiar" with that state's litigation environment, the Chamber said in a news release.

Survey respondents assigned each state a letter grade for each of 12 different factors affecting the states' tort liability system, ranging from the overall treatment of tort and contract litigation to judges' competence and impartiality. Harris compiled an overall score for each state based on those evaluations.

The study found only two in five (41 percent) of the lawyers rated state courts overall as "excellent" or "pretty good," while more than half (55 percent) called the courts "only fair" or "poor." Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the respondents believed the litigation environment in a state could influence important business decisions.

Delaware has held the top spot in the ranking for the entire seven-year run of the ILR/Harris survey, the Chamber said. Other top states include Nebraska, Maine, Indiana and Utah.

West Virginia is ranked in last place for the third year in a row, although its raw score has steadily improved. Others at the bottom of the list include Louisiana, Alabama, and Illinois.

"The bottom line is this: even though we're seeing some improvements, from the perspective of global competitiveness, America's legal climate is only as good as our worst states, so we need to keep working," Donohue said.

Trial lawyers react

The American Association for Justice, an advocacy group for trial lawyers, called the ILR's study "propaganda," and it accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of serving "at the behest of elite corporate insiders."

The group said the Chamber -- which it describes as a corporate front group -- is trying to prevent people from getting justice in the courtroom.

AAJ said only corporate defense lawyers from companies earning $100 million or more were surveyed -- and it also questioned the methodolgy used to produce the state-by-state rankings.

"U.S. Chamber seems to believe that giant corporations should get a free pass for their negligence or misconduct," said AAJ CEO Jon Haber. "All Americans should have a fair chance to receive justice through the legal system -- even when it means taking on the most powerful corporations."

The ILR is now running national TV and online ads highlighting the impact of lawsuit abuse on local businesses and families.

According to the Chamber, the ILR/Harris Interactive survey is the preeminent standard by which companies, policymakers and the media measure the legal environment of states.

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