#4 News Story: Madison and St. Clair counties nation's top 'Hellholes'

Ann Knef Dec. 28, 2004, 6:06am

St. Clair County Courthouse

Madison County Courthouse

For the first time, St. Clair County, Ill. has the dubious distinction of being named a "judicial hellhole," by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), which released its third annual report ranking the nation's worst courthouses.

Following in the footsteps of its Metro-East neighbor, Madison County--which retains its Number One position--St. Clair County shows up in second place in ATRA's report.

St. Clair County "has emerged from Madison County's shadow and achieved a reputation as a Judicial Hellhole all its own," according to the report.

"Lawsuits have become an industry in St. Clair County," ATRA reports. "Evidence suggests that St. Clair County has decided to get into the litigation tourism business as well."

Steve Schoeffel, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), said St. Clair County made the list for the first time in part due to the significant increase in class action filings.

"There has been an 1100% increase in class action filings in St. Clair County," Schoeffel said. "So far this year there have been 24 class action suits filed in St. Clair County, compared to only two in 2002."

"That doesn't sound like a lot," Schoeffel said. "But it's very close to where Madison County was a few years ago. The class actions that are being filed (in St. Clair County) are against major corporations from all over the country."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, believes public outrage will energize southern Illinoisans.

"Despite the embarrassment of having not one, but two of the worst judicial jurisdictions in the U.S. in our state--in one small area of our state--for the first time in years there is reason for optimism," Murnane said in a written statement.

"We think this is a refreshing and hopeful development and we think the citizens of southern Illinois, rather than sitting back and congratulating themselves on their election successes, will intensify their attention to the court system and will be more than willing to work again in 2006 to fix a broken system," Murnane said.

ATRA also points to a "medical malpractice crisis" which has led physicians to flee the Metro-East, citing a study that suggests doctors are frequent lawsuit targets.

"The report estimated that more than half of the Metro-East region's 950 licensed physicians were personally named or had their practices named in lawsuits in the last four years," according to ATRA.

"Records also showed that 85% of medical malpractice claims closed in St. Clair County between 1999 and 2003 resulted in no payment to the plaintiff, demonstrating that many of the accusations against doctors are unfounded.

"Most of the cases are brought by a handful of local law firms."

This year trial lawyers should be even happier

"When it comes to the big business of trial lawyering, again there is no better place to set up shop than Madison County," according to the ATRA report.

The number of class actions is still high in Madison County, which is why it remains the nation's top Judicial Hellhole, according to Schoeffel.

Madison County Circuit Judge George Moran said he welcomed criticism but believes trial judges in the 3rd Circuit simply follow the law as "enunciated by the high court," he said.

"I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and don't believe that public officials are above criticism," Moran said. "I welcome and invite parties to comment on our judicial system as they see fit."

Schoeffel stated that the judicial temperament of one judge in particular largely contributed to Madison County's retaining its top 'hellhole' status.

"The actions by (Madison County Circuit) Judge Nicholas Byron barring critics of the asbestos docket from his court left Madison County at the No. 1 position," he said.

ATRA's report charges that Madison County continues to faulter by allowing "venue shopping."

"One of the most significant problems with the civil justice system in Madison County is venue," the report states. "Specifically, Madison County judges allow claims to proceed in Madison County courts where the plaintiff and defendant are located out-of-state, the plaintiff's exposure occurred out of state, medical treatment was provided outside the state, no witnesses live in Illinois and no evidence relates to the state."

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