What's the Matter with Madison County?

Stan Anderson Sep. 1, 2004, 9:33am

Madison County, Illinois has more class action lawsuit filings than any other county in America, having set a national record in 2003 with 106 class action filings. That's up from 77 class action filings in 2002, compared to only two filings in 1998. It is important to note that these cases have very little, if any, connection to Madison County.

The overwhelming majority of class actions filed in Madison County are nationwide lawsuits, in which 99 percent of class members live outside the county. These class actions are often filed by non-Illinois lawyers against corporations based outside of Illinois and concern acts that did not occur in Madison County.

Clearly, the venue has been selected for strategic purposes only.

Madison County’s popularity among plaintiffs’ lawyers is due in part to the willingness of its judges to certify class actions even after other courts have found that the very same cases do not meet basic procedural requirements for class certification, and to approve settlements in which nearly all of the relief goes to the lawyers rather than the class members.

The decisions reached in Madison County’s courts affect consumers all over the country. Many of the nationwide class actions filed in Madison County involve standard insurance or other financial services practices that are followed by all the major companies in these industries. Thus, Madison County’s elected judges are effectively being asked to set national policies on important commercial issues that will affect Americans who live outside the county.

Examples abound where Madison County class actions produced little or nothing for aggrieved consumers, while their lawyers received millions in cash. For example, in one case involving faulty television sets, class members received coupons to buy another TV from the same manufacturer who made the allegedly defective sets, while their lawyers were awarded $22 million in legal fees.

In another Madison County class action against a phone company, class members were awarded $5 phone cards that did not work in the states where many class members resided. The plaintiffs’ attorneys in that case were awarded $16 million.

Recently, Madison County Judge Nicholas Byron threw reporters out of his courtroom so he could conduct a secret hearing. The subject was not national security or sensitive diplomatic matters. Rather, he was hearing a dispute between two attorneys over their fees in a class action settlement. So why all the secrecy?

Apparently, the judge was trying to limit “bad press” and keep Madison County from learning about how much money plaintiffs’ trial attorneys are making at the expense of victims, employees and Illinois families.

On the asbestos lawsuit front, Madison County has seen more than 8,000 actions filed since the 1980s. The number of asbestos cases in Madison County has increased sharply–-going from 65 in 1996 to 809 in 2002. In 2003, there were 950 cases and there are currently approximately 1,500 cases pending in 2004.

Furthermore, in 2003, a $250 million asbestos verdict was awarded to a single plaintiff--the largest-ever such verdict. The Indiana man who received the award neither lived in, nor was allegedly injured in, Illinois, much less Madison County. This was another example of the misuse of Madison County’s courts for venue-shopping reasons.

Earlier this year, local plaintiff’s attorney Randy Bono, of the SimmonsCooper law firm, informed the media that he had asked all of the defendants his firm is suing in asbestos cases to disclose whether they are members or supporters of 33 specific legal reform organizations, including the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Civil Justice League. This is a serious misuse of a legitimate discovery practice and an attempt to stifle free speech that serves no purpose other than intimidation.

Madison County’s legal climate also has a negative impact on quality healthcare for the people of the entire Metro-East region. According to Harry Maier, president of Memorial Hospital in Belleville, Metro-East hospitals will have lost 161 physicians (79 in Madison County alone) by the end of the year. This doctor exodus has largely been caused by rising medical liability rates resulting from the area’s court system and general legal environment. According to one recent report, in the past two years, Belleville hospitals have curtailed or eliminated a number of critical medical services, including neurosurgery and on-call trauma surgery. Early last month, St. Elizabeth's Hospital of Belleville reported that it had eliminated its practice of having an orthopedic surgeon on call 24 hours a day. Those patients must now travel to St. Louis – or further – to receive medical care.

Madison County’s legal system and its associated problems hurt the business climate and reputation of the county, the Metro-East region and the entire state of Illinois. Madison County residents should be aware that their legal system is costing them money. It has been estimated that the tort system costs the average Madison County family of four an estimated $3,200 a year in higher prices, higher insurance rates and rising healthcare costs.

The citizens of Madison County need to pay attention to what is going on in their courts and take action to correct the abuses that not only cost them money but bring discredit to the county.

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