Heather Isringhausen Gvillo Apr. 16, 2015, 9:21am

In a study examining Illinois’ legal system, the Illinois Civil Justice league has found that case filings in Madison County alone amounted to more than six times the rate of nearly 100 other Illinois counties combined. For those familiar with the local court system, the reason is obvious - asbestos.

The ICJL study, titled Litigation Imbalance III, released on April 14, examines  docket trends across all Illinois counties.

Litigation Imbalance III is the third in a series of reports that examine major civil case filings in Illinois,” stated John Pastuovic, President of the Illinois Civil Justice League. “This latest study has uncovered disturbing data that shows why business has been hesitant to invest in Illinois and has taken meaningful jobs elsewhere.”

Collaborating with the Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, the study compares case filings and verdict totals in Cook, Madison, St. Clair, Jackson, Jefferson and Williamson counties against information in the state’s 96 other counties. The study created a litigation index, determined by the number of cases filed per 1,000 persons of population in the county.

The ICJL released its first report in 2005 and its second report in 2009.

According to its third report, the 2013 litigation index for the counties – not including Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties – is 1.260, which is the lowest in 41 years.

However, in Madison County, lawsuit filings averaged 8.255 per thousand persons, which is double the rate of Cook County, triple the rate of St. Clair County and six and a half times the rate of the other 99 counties in Illinois combined.

“Disturbingly, as the statewide and downstate numbers are flat for Illinois as a whole, Madison County has again regained its intensity, reaching 2,206 cases filed in 2013 – equal to the highest filing rate since the court changed reporting procedures in the mid-1990s. The 2013 filing rate represents a 50 percent increase from the average of the previous ten years,” the report states.

The study also says that the number of cases filed per thousand Madison County residents has increased by more than four cases per thousand persons in the past six years. If Cook County increased at the same rate, it would amount to 20,963 new cases.

The ICJL attributes Madison County’s high filing rate to the county’s asbestos docket, calling it a “rocket docket.”

According to the report, Madison County case filings would “fit within statistical averages” if it weren’t for the large number of asbestos cases, most of which aren’t filed on behalf of local residents. In fact, roughly 10 percent of asbestos plaintiffs in Madison County are from Illinois and only 1 percent are from Madison County.

Madison County saw a record breaking year in asbestos case filings in 2013, reaching 1,678, while only 528 non-asbestos cases were filed that same year. If it weren’t for the asbestos docket, the study states that Madison County would have had a litigation index of 1.976.

Despite the large number of asbestos filings, Madison County sees roughly one asbestos trial per year.

“The plaintiffs’ attorneys will tout the lack of trials as proof that there is little abuse in the Madison County courthouse, but that perspective would diminish the value of the 99.9 percent of asbestos cases that settle – and the mountains of cash made by the plaintiffs’ firms in the process,” ICJL states in the study.

“This is great secrecy surrounding the wealth exchanging hands through this docket, but with an estimated outcome of $2 million per case, the Madison County asbestos ‘rocket docket’ could be worth more than $1.74 billion annually and could produce nearly $600 million annually in contingency fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Pastuovic added.

That means Madison County’s asbestos docket is larger than the annual gross domestic product of Belize, the study found.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association called the study “junk science,” and accused the ICJL of misinforming and misleading the public.

“As usual, ICJL offers a distorted view of the Illinois court system to serve the political and financial goals of its patrons, which are to maximize profits and further concentrate wealth with only a few, no matter the human toll,” ITLA stated.

ITLA argues that Illinois courts provide a fair place for the public “to hold wrongdoers accountable,” and it credits Illinois courts with quickly dismissing the lawsuits filed without merit.

“The ICJL’s shoddy study wouldn’t be accepted at any peer-reviewed legal journal and its collection of selective statistics, incomplete data and foregone conclusions do not deserve to be taken at face value by the people of Illinois. Instead, it should be recognized for what it is, a pathetic attempt to put a phony academic gloss on the effort to strip middle and lower income Illinoisans of their constitutional right to access the courts their tax dollars fund,” it continued.

Travis Akin, Executive Director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, however, suggested that a good way for the state improve economically would be for lawmakers to follow through on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s push for legal reform.

“This study once again confirms Illinois status as the lawsuit abuse capital of the Midwest,” Akin stated. “The best way to start to turn around Illinois is for lawmakers to embrace the governor’s proposed lawsuit reforms such as venue reform to stop personal injury lawyers from venue shopping for favorable Illinois court jurisdictions.”

Pastuovic attributed the state’s economic problems and tendency to drive businesses away to the study’s findings.

“Creating new and meaningful jobs is the solution for nearly every other major issue facing Illinois today," he stated. "Unfortunately the data detailed in this report as well as the findings in other national studies have made small, medium and large companies justifiably gun shy about our state. Businesses cannot and will not reinvest in Illinois until these established, deep-rooted and documented problems are addressed once and for all.”

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