Lawsuit-happy climate a handicap in race for jobs

At issue | April 24 commentary by Maresa Fawns. "Study skews view of courts"

It is unfortunate that the Herald-Leader chose to run an op-ed from the Kentucky Justice Association attacking a recent study of our state's judicial climate without ever having reported on the study.

Then your readers could have have learned, for example, that the decision to rank Kentucky's judicial climate 40th among the states was based primarily on three well-known and indisputable facts:

■ Kentucky is experiencing a massive increase in the number of civil suits filed over the past several years.

■ Kentucky is one of a minority of states that does not have a clear and convincing standard for evidence in civil suits.

■ Kentucky has received a significant amount of negative publicity surrounding the trial and conviction of two of our state's most prominent trial lawyers for defrauding their clients out of millions of dollars.

Administrative Office of the Courts data show that the number of civil lawsuits filed in state circuit courts jumped 60 percent from 2002 to 2009. Kentucky's district courts have seen a 42 percent increase during the same period. New case filings are "at an all-time high," said Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton Jr. in 2008.

As is often the case in situations like this, the Kentucky Justice Association doesn't dispute the substance of the report but attacks the messenger, in this case the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate attorneys who participated in the survey — the same corporate attorneys who participate in the process of evaluating states as possible locations for new jobs and investment.

It is clear that the association representing trial lawyers in Kentucky doesn't think very highly of the opinion of corporate attorneys, but those opinions count when Kentucky is competing for jobs. Do they have the interests of their employers in mind when they rate the states? Of course, they do.

Criticizing corporate attorneys for suggesting to their employers which states might be the most appealing for new jobs and investment is akin to criticizing trial lawyers for responding in surveys that it should be easier to sue people and businesses.

The responses of both groups are predictable, and criticism of them misses the point.

With unemployment in double digits in Kentucky and the average per capita income continuing to languish as it has for decades in the bottom 10 of all states, the last thing our commonwealth needs is another reason for potential employers to cross us off their lists.

The Harris Interactive study isn't about lawsuits in which real people have legitimate claims that warrant a judicial remedy. It is an analysis of how companies throughout the United States perceive the risk of doing business in our state. The more they fear the judicial climate, the less likely they are to invest here.

KJA suggests that if the chamber wanted to create a more thriving business community, it should start by cutting back on million-dollar bonuses and invest in creating jobs.

I don't know if anyone in Kentucky has benefited from a million-dollar bonus not associated with the lottery, but I do know that convincing companies to invest in creating jobs in our state is far more difficult in a climate where companies think there is a lawsuit lurking around every corner.

To say nothing of the companies that employ most Kentuckians, the thousands of small businesses who are easy pickings for predator attorneys and frivolous lawsuits.

It is more than a bit disingenuous for KJA to suggest that the "legal and business community should not be at odds, but instead should be seen as allies" while in the same breath attacking the U. S. Chamber of Commerce for pointing out what is painfully obvious to everyone, except the trial lawyers KJA presents.

With unemployment at near-record levels, Kentucky needs to be cognizant of any deterrents to job creation and that includes the perception of our legal climate.