Is Baltimore a Judicial Hellhole?

Baltimore is “teetering along the edge of a hellhole” because of its hospitable climate for personal injury lawsuits, according to a recent study from the American Tort Reform Foundation.

If you are a lawyer handling medical malpractice, accident, or products liability cases in the city, this comes a little out of left-field because while we consider Baltimore a more reasonable jurisdiction than most in Maryland to try personal injury cases. It is not tort attorney utopia. I wish it was.

The city makes up a sizeable portion of personal injury cases in Maryland, which has a median jury verdict in personal injury cases is $12,813. In contrast, the median jury verdict in New York in personal injury cases is $287,628. So let’s get serious.

It is a good town for asbestos and lead paint claims. But this is not because of judges or juries in Baltimore. It is because it is—and even more so, was—a blue-collar town with a lot of workers who had exposure to asbestos. I realize some people find it frustrating that personal injury lawyers handling these cases ended up with “buy a baseball team” money. This American Tort Reform report plays to this sentiment, calling Baltimore “a welcoming host to a disproportionate share” of asbestos lawsuits and singled out Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, calling him an “all-star plaintiffs’ attorney with a specialty in asbestos cases.” (Somehow, I doubt Angelos takes offense to this.)

I don’t think anyone other than a personal injury attorney gets excited about anyone making billions of dollars in legal fees. But the asbestos litigation was a once in a generation disaster. And this town became a hotbed because of the industries we have here. The abject suffering caused by mesothelioma from asbestos has been lost in all the attention being paid to the litigation.

We are also in a unique position on lead paint cases because public officials got us out in front of the lead paint problem by testing kids much earlier than other cities which provided the data to secure and support expert opinions.

This means they could file many cases before the insurance companies got wise and started putting lead paint exclusions in their insurance policies with landlords. Sure, there have been several good lead paint verdicts—including the $5.7 million verdict mentioned in the American Tort Reform report. But, look, trying a case on behalf of a brain-injured child against a slum landlord is like shooting fish in a barrel. The report neglects to mention that the court cut the jury’s award to less than $1.3 million because of the caps on non-economic damages in Maryland.

Lead paint verdicts against defendants could have been a lot higher. When I was defending these cases in the 90s, plaintiffs’ lead paint lawyers were not seeking significant non-economic damages in lead paint cases. There were no economists or anyone else who explained the predicted lost earnings in lead paint cases. (Arguably, failing to do so was legal malpractice.) Instead, they just sought medical bills and the cap on non-economic damages.

(Apropos to nothing—and I hesitate to raise the issue because I don’t think like-minded people will agree with me – the American Tort Reform Association has chosen “judicial hellholes” to describe the judicial climate in these areas. I’m hard to offend but they are using the word “hellholes.”’ If I heard someone use this term orally in an interview or something, I would think nothing of it. But using this term in writing as the underlying theme of a report just seems over-the-top to me. )

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