If you've ever been entangled in an endless lawsuit, you can probably identify with the character in Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" who said it's like being ground to bits in a slow mill, roasted at a slow fire, stung to death by single bees and drowned by drops.
Complex business litigation is especially vulnerable to clock-running tactics that torment souls and drain bank accounts. But it ain't necessarily so. Atlanta recently joined the growing ranks of jurisdictions with special business courts to handle complex cases that bog down in regular courts and squander resources.
Atlanta's fast-track court is still in its infancy, but those who've used it report surprising speed and efficiency. The court is presided over by senior judges with experience in complex business litigation. One weakness in the Atlanta court: It is voluntary. Both parties to a dispute must agree to file there, which leaves a loophole for delaying tactics.
But special business courts operating in a handful of other states have achieved exemplary success. The main benefits of these forums are their efficiency and predictability.
One reason so many businesses organize under Delaware's laws is the state's Chancery Court. Five chancellors deal only with complex business cases. They issue written opinions in every case, and litigants can appeal immediately to the Delaware Supreme Court. Attorneys say the predictability of the law in these courts is rarely seen in other states.
After New York established its Commercial Division of the State Supreme Court 10 years ago, the average time to dispose of cases decreased by 29 percent, the number of cases settled before trial increased by 85 percent, and the volume of pending case decreased by 26 percent.
In Florida, cases that had dragged on for years in regular courts were reassigned to the business court and disposed of in short order. Said one Florida judge, "There have literally been a few cases where checks changed hands right in front of [the judge]."
Business courts also excel at case management. In many traditional courts, judges can be rotated to other circuits while a case is in progress. Pretrial motions might be heard by one judge and the trial conducted by another. But business court judges stay put. The same judge handles every aspect of a case from start to finish.
Another advantage of these courts: They become reservoirs of expertise. Because business court judges hear only complex business cases, they develop proficiency in handling substantive and procedural issues typical in such cases. They can rule quickly because they know their way through the thickets.
Business courts are part of a national trend toward specialty courts in other complex areas, such as medical malpractice and mass torts. It's a healthful trend.
Attorneys who specialize in personal injury cases usually don't dabble in antitrust law or intellectual property disputes. Neither should courts. General practitioners might have had a place in Dickens' era. But in today's high-tech, global marketplace, complex commercial litigation calls for special courts. We need more of them.