By John O’Brien | Legal Newsline

A new report says southern New Jersey’s business owners are worried about the legal climate they’re facing.

Nearly all small business owners surveyed — 87 percent — want the Legislature to make tort reform a priority, according to a survey conducted by the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. Forty percent of South Jersey businesses have been threatened with litigation in the past five years, and 25 percent have actually been brought to court in that time, the survey says.

“It’s clear that New Jersey’s liability laws put the state at a disadvantage,” said Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance. “But that disadvantage is exacerbated if a business happens to operate in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia’s legal climate has come under fire in the past year. The American Tort Reform Association named it the No. 1 Judicial Hellhole in the country in its annual report in December.

And a recent study conducted by Joshua Wright, a law and economics professor at George Mason University School of Law, says there are “systemic biases” in Philadelphia’s civil courts that attract plaintiffs with no connection to the city.

The Pennsylvania legislature is currently mulling a venue-reform bill. Current venue law in the state allows a plaintiff to file a lawsuit in a county in which the defendant may be served, the cause of action arose or the transaction or occurrence out of which the cause of action took place.

In the past five years, two-thirds of South Jersey businesses saw their liability insurance premiums go up, the Rutgers study says.

“Business owners are telling us that even if it’s not their business being sued today, they still might incur costs and will need to make judgments about where to invest their business’ resources,” Rayner said. “This is not the kind of restraint we ought to have in a state with a 9.2 percent unemployment rate.”