Senate candidates embody tort debate
Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) has represented the 56th district since 2002.
In the heart of the most notorious legal environment in Illinois, the 56th District Illinois Senate race epitomizes the debate over lawsuit reform raging statewide.
Republican challenger David Sherrill is a small business owner who believes Madison County’s lawsuit-friendly environment is bad for the area’s economy. Incumbent Democrat William Haine is a trial lawyer who says tort reform won’t create jobs.
When Sherrill, of Edwardsville, looks at the Illinois General Assembly, he sees far too many lawyers, he says, and far too few who know what it's like to run a small business, hire people and risk losing a lifetime of work in a lawsuit.
"Any professional firm doing business in Madison County can expect to have at least one lawsuit a year," says Sherrill. "That is the M.O. of the lawyers: drag in as many companies as you can to get as much money from as many as you can. It's hurting business, hurting the economy, driving jobs away."
That helped drive Sherrill, owner of Sherrill Associates, an engineering, surveying and planning firm, to run for the Illinois State Senate. His opponent, Haine, is a lawyer with the SimmonsCooper law firm in East Alton, perhaps the nation's leading law firm to specialize in suing companies over environmental hazards such as asbestos and benzene.
Haine counters there is little evidence that jobs are leaving Madison County because of the legal system or the lack of tort-reform legislation from the General Assembly.
"I'm not sure the loss of manufacturing jobs has anything to do with state policy," Haine says. "But we do need to carefully address the business atmosphere. We need companies that hire union labor."
Sherrill goes so far as to to say that if he is elected, one of the first things he will do is call for a state judicial review of the Madison County court system, which attracts more class action lawsuits than any jurisdiction in the nation.
He says he would also meet with the Department of Professional Regulation and the state bar association to address lawyers’ ethics and canons, and would try to bar lawyers and law firms from making political donations to judges who are likely to hear a case they are handling.
The Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that favors litigation reform, recently reported that trial lawyers in Illinois have already contributed $1 million to the Democratic Party of Illinois—much of it coming from three firms in Madison County. SimmonsCooper, Haine’s firm, gave $100,000, Carey & Danis $100,000 and attorney and former Madison County Judge Randall A. Bono contributed $100,000. Bono is of counsel at SimmonsCooper.
Local trial lawyers have also lent strong support to Judge Gordon Maag, a former Madison County trial lawyer and candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court in the Fifth District. He is being challenged by Judge Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican.
Haine says he sees nothing wrong with such contributions.
"Businesses give money too," Haine says. "That's as old as America. These issues don't accomplish anything. They divert from policy discussions. Who's a good judge? What's the record? That's what matters. As to my being a lawyer and a legislator, I'm not going apologize for being a lawyer."
But when it comes to medical malpractice, Haine sees a need to curb his colleagues. He considers the loss of doctors to be the paramount issue in the area.
"I've told my lawyer friends that something has to be done," Haine says. "Doctors are different. Medical malpractice must be treated differently than your usual lawsuit. There's a smaller pool of people paying the insurance premiums, and it relies more heavily on scientific evidence."
A Haine-sponsored bill that would have protected physicians' personal assets passed the senate 47-9 during the last session but did not get called in the House.
Sherrill says there was never any chance the bill would pass and that the protection--$2 million for personal assets if the doctor carried $1 million of malpractice coverage--was practically meaningless because the average punitive damages award in Illinois is now more than $4.5 million, Sherill says, "so his bill gives the doctors nothing."
"We've lost a lot of jobs in our area, the business climate is very negative, and we're trying to bring in a better tax base," Sherrill says. "That's hard to do when you have strong litigators, lots of lawsuits and a poor business climate generated by the state. It's time for a change."
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