Madison and St. Clair taken off top spots in ATRA's 'hellhole' report

Ann Knef Dec. 13, 2005, 4:23am

Sherman "Tiger" Joyce

Madison and St. Clair County Courts have been taken off the hottest spots in the nation's "judicial hellholes" list, according to the fourth annual report issued by the American Tort Reform Association.

But they remain among the worst courts in the country, according to ATRA:

Madison County continues to host a disproportionate amount of litigation compared to other areas of the state and nation.

St. Clair County is "infected by its legally ailing northern neighbor" where lawsuits are an "industry."

ATRA states its goal is to provide solutions for restoring balance and predictability to America's civil justice system--not to flip and make state courts a hellhole for plaintiffs.

"It is possible to quench the fires in Judicial Hellholes with the help of judges, legislators, the electorate and the media," said Sherman Joyce, president of ATRA.

"By shining the spotlight on the abuses in these jurisdictions, Judicial Hellholes can become fair courts."

Having shown improvement through asbestos case management, venue rulings and medical liability reform--driven into law by southern Illinois forces--the Metro-East counties dropped only a few notches in rank, descending from first and second place in 2004, to fourth and fifth in the 2005 list of the worst courts in the U.S.

Madison and St. Clair counties were named to the report's "Points of Light" section, which highlights areas where judges, legislators, the electorate, and the media intervened to stem abusive judicial practices.

According to ATRA's report, some of the Points of Light include: the enactment of the Class Action Fairness Act; the Illinois Supreme Court ruling that a state trial judge should not have granted nationwide class action treatment in Avery v. State Farm and four different states addressing asbestos and silica litigation reform.

While the improved ranking was welcomed, it was accompanied with tempered reaction.

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said it was an "embarrassment" that three Illinois counties are included in the list of six.

"The Illinois Civil Justice League is not surprised that Madison and St. Clair counties have dropped a few notches," said Murnane. "The expressions of outrage that voters in Southern Illinois demonstrated in last year's judicial elections and this year's legislative session, particularly as it related to medical liability reform, has helped move the region in the right direction.

"But there should be no rejoicing," he said.

"Madison and St. Clair counties continue to be among the five worst court jurisdictions in the United States and that is still a shameful situation."

Chicago's Cook County rose in rank to the list's Number 2 position.

"Cook County's meteoric rise in the 'Hellhole' rankings defies the plaintiffs bar's argument that Illinois' lawsuit abuse problem is limited only to Madison and St. Clair counties," said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform.

"The fact that three separate Illinois counties have gained national reputations as lawsuit magnets shows that the state is in need of comprehensive lawsuit reforms--including legislation that would help stop court shopping by plaintiffs' lawyers by strengthening the state's permissive venue laws--to restore fairness and balance to the legal system."

2005 Judicial Hellholes:

Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast, Texas
Cook County
West Virginia
Madison County
St. Clair County
South Florida

Getting it?

"Judges seem to be getting the message, particularly those judges who are facing retention next year," according to ATRA's report.

"The addition of several new, highly qualified and impartial judges to both the appellate court and to local circuit courts has done a lot to improve the perception of fairness and impartiality in a short period of time.

New to ATRA's report this year is a "Watch List" - a list of areas that have been cited in previous Judicial Hellhole reports or are new areas that are being closely monitored due to negative developments in the litigation environment.

2005 Watch List:
Eastern Kentucky
Eastern Alabama
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
New Mexico
Orleans Parish, Louisiana
Washington, D.C.

Report highlights:
Madison County: While some judges have shown an increased willingness to transfer or dismiss cases that have no relationship to the jurisdictions, the state still needs to change its "sue anywhere" venue law.

The federal Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 has helped stem the abuses in these Judicial Hellholes, but plaintiffs' lawyers are repackaging their class actions in order to keep them in these friendly venues. A newly enacted medical liability reform should help level premium rates and plug the dam of doctors leaving the state.

While problems get resolved in southern Illinois, they have become more pronounced in the north in Cook County, which ranked as the second worst Judicial Hellhole on the list.

Cook County attracts a disproportionate amount of asbestos litigation. A total of 236 asbestos lawsuits were filed in Cook County in 2004, a 40 percent increase over the prior year. Cook County judges also have abused their discretion by refusing to transfer cases to the proper venue.

West Virginia remains the only statewide Judicial Hellhole, and this year it is Number 3. Recently, a State Supreme Court Justice refused to recuse himself from a case involving a corporate defendant that
that same Justice called a "clown," "stupid" and an "outsider."

Also, plaintiffs' lawyers are using the state's consumer protection statutes so that they do not have to show a product is unreasonably dangerous, which is a basic element of product defect claims.

In West Virginia, medical monitoring remains problematic as does the alliance between the lawyers, the attorney general and the courts.

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