Coon firm overlooks illegality of punitive damage prayer in original complaints

Bob Ramsey

When attorney Robert Ramsey filed 138 asbestos lawsuits in Madison County Circuit Court for Texas attorney Brent Coon, he broke the law 138 times.

Every complaint asked for punitive damages. By Illinois law, the original complaint in a case of personal injury or property damage cannot ask for punitive damages.

Ramsey, who runs a St. Louis office for Coon's firm, filed the complaints in September. He caught the mistake in October and asked Circuit Judge Daniel Stack for leave to amend the complaints.

"The original complaints erroneously contained a count praying for punitive damages in violation of 735 ILCS 5/2-604.1," Ramsey wrote.

Stack granted leave to amend the complaints Oct. 28. Ramsey then filed 138 amended complaints without claims for punitive damages.

The new complaints also fixed defects in the roster of defendants in the caption, or title. Ramsey added to the caption defendants that he accused in the text but failed to include in the caption. He also alphabetized the roster.

Humans make mistakes, and no one would argue that judges should dismiss every imperfect lawsuit.

Mass litigation, however, guarantees mass error.

All the Coon suits made the same mistakes because the firm simply reproduced every word except the plaintiff's name and scraps of personal history.

That approach creates a problem bigger than error. Once a company makes the defense roster, it stays there for every click of the plaintiff's print button.

Most of Coon's plaintiffs worked at the same factory, near Chicago, but they held all sorts of jobs in a huge plant and they worked through different spans of time.

They could not have suffered identical exposures to asbestos products, but the print button says they did.

Really, no more sensationalism?

Why can't Illinois plaintiffs ask for punitive damages at the outset of a case?

Prior to 1982, they could. The Illinois legislature banned the practice because attorneys sensationalized cases with unrealistic claims for punitive damages.

The power of a grand claim showed itself last month when an East St. Louis man filed a $100 trillion lawsuit against the Texas governor and other officials. That grabbed headlines and ran on, a website of oddities.

In 1982, the legislature muted the headlines by declaring that, "In all actions on account of bodily injury or physical damage to property, based on negligence, or product liability based on strict tort liability, where punitive damages are permitted no complaint shall be filed containing a prayer for relief seeking punitive damages."

The legislature allowed a plaintiff to amend a complaint and include a prayer for punitive damages pursuant to pretrial motion and after a hearing.

A plaintiff must move to amend no more than 30 days after the close of discovery.

A judge must allow the amendment if the plaintiff establishes "a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial sufficient to support an award of punitive damages."

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