Metro

New report names New York a ‘judicial hellhole’

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It’s settled: New York is the second-worst “judicial hellhole” in the country, according to a new study.

The Empire State earned the unflattering ranking, behind only California, thanks to a flood of frivolous food lawsuits, disability complaints and “nuclear” verdicts shelling out millions in awards, the American Tort Reform Association found.

The nonprofit that seeks to reduce lawsuit abuse says 109 food and beverage consumer class-action lawsuits were filed last year — more than the top four states on the “judicial hellhole” list combined.

One lawyer, Spencer Sheehan — dubbed the “Vanilla Vigilante” — filed almost two-thirds of these types of suits in 2020, the ATRA claims in its 20th annual report, issued Tuesday.

One of Sheehan’s complaints accuses supermarket Price Chopper of selling vanilla Greek yogurt with “natural flavors” — even though it only contains artificial flavoring.

New York also has the most cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with 1,694 filed in 2020 alone, the study says.

Spencer Sheehan
Lawyer Spencer Sheehan has been dubbed the “Vanilla Vigilante.”
Courtesy of Spencer Sheehan

ADA suits typically involve claims that companies’ websites aren’t accessible for people who are visually impaired or that brick-and-mortar stores don’t have ramps for those in wheelchairs.

The study highlights “serial plaintiffs” who, in some cases, have brought claims against dozens of companies.

One of them, Arik Matatov, was outed by The Post in 2018 for claiming he was wheelchair-bound and unable to access a number of shops — even though he could actually walk.

Another major problem in New York’s civil courts are so-called “nuclear verdicts” in personal injury and medical malpractice cases that far surpass other verdicts in similar cases, the reform group claims.

The study highlighted the $20 million verdict that Mark Perez received for a brain injury he suffered when he fell at a Live Nation concert 2013. The jury originally awarded him $101 million and the appellate court in April knocked it down to $20 million — still making it the highest at the time.

An even higher payout came last month in the case of severely burned high school student Alonzo Yanes. An appellate court awarded him $29 million, cutting a $60 million jury verdict from 2019 in half.

New York also ranks third in the country for the most asbestos-related lawsuits, which are chronically padded with blameless defendants, according to a prior study.

Arik Matatov walks out of his apartment in Reno Park and gets into a Access-A-Ride by himself with no assistance
Arik Matatov walks out of his apartment and gets into an Access-A-Ride by himself with no assistance.
Dennis A. Clark

The ATRA blamed the state’s judicial problem on the state legislature passing bills that promote the expansion of litigation, rather than passing bills that limit it.

“Lawsuits might fill government budget gaps and give trial lawyers a nice payday, but the unfortunate reality is that awards and settlements primarily benefit lawyers, not the individuals they claim to help or the problems that were to be solved,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce said.

Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York Executive Director Tom Stebbins added, “Average New Yorkers are hurting and they can hardly afford to continue to subsidize the lavish lifestyles of the Empire State’s trial attorneys.

“Nuclear verdicts are on the rise and our courts lead the nation in frivolous food packaging lawsuits and dubious claims filed under the ADA – a well-intentioned law that unscrupulous trial lawyers have turned into a cash cow.”

Sheehan told The Post: “If the suits I was filing were indicative of the ‘hellhole’ they describe, surely courts would be sanctioning them and penalizing me.

“But they’re not because there is thankfully no restriction on consumers from trying to keep companies honest.”

New York courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said the courts are only a venue for lawsuits and that the state legislature is responsible for making laws to curb frivolous litigation and unusually high verdicts.

“Every case is decided on its merits,” Chalfen said. “However, frivolous lawsuits and excessive awards are neither encouraged nor imposed by the court, they are a result of other governmental institutions creating an environment that allows for those results.”

Mark Perez
A jury awarded Mark Perez $101 million before an appellate court knocked it down to $20 million.

Reps for state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Bernadette Hogan

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