Madison County waiting on PM verdict

Ann Knef Dec. 14, 2005, 10:51am

Stephen Tillery

Joseph Power, Jr.

Poised to deliver one of the most powerful decisions in recent times, the Illinois Supreme Court will rule Thursday whether a $10 billion Madison County bench verdict is upheld or overturned.

In 2003, Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron ruled that the tobacco giant duped smokers into believing light cigarettes were safer than regular ones. Sharon Price, an East Alton police dispatcher, was the lead plaintiff in the famed class action lawsuit. She received $11,384.

Plaintiff's attorney Stephen Tillery of Korein Tillery in St. Louis stands to earn $1.7 billion in legal fees if the verdict remains intact.

Anticipating the high court's ruling in Price v. Philip Morris USA and what the potential outcome might be, there was much chatter at the courthouse Wednesday.

Most court employees and public officials who were asked to weigh in stated that they believe the decision will be overturned, based on recent landmark rulings by the high court in Avery v. State Farm and Gridley v. State Farm.

In the Avery decision, reached Aug. 18, the court threw out a billion dollar verdict ruling that a Williamson County Circuit Court erred in certifying a nationwide class. Avery alleged that State Farm breached its contracts with policy holders by repairing vehicles with inferior parts and it violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act by concealing that practice.

In a 6-0 Nov. 17 decision, the high court reversed lower court rulings and remanded Christopher Gridley's case against State Farm Insurance back to Madison County with directions to dismiss the complaint based on forum non conveniens. Gridley and Avery were from Louisiana.

One high level official speculated that a 3-3 court decision is possible. In that case, the verdict would be upheld. The official also opined that a 6-0 decision, as evidenced in the "Gridley" decision, is "improbable."

In the Avery opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow criticized the Fifth District Appellate Court so harshly that two justices arose indignantly to defend the appellate court.

"I feel it is my duty to remind my colleagues that the same standards of review that are at play in the other four districts of the state apply to the Fifth District," Justice Charles Freeman wrote in partial dissent to McMorrow's Aug. 18 opinion.

"I am concerned that today's opinion sends a message that we, as a court, will employ different standards for cases coming out of the Fifth District on which national attention has been focused in order to reach a desired result," Freeman wrote.

Justice Thomas Kilbride signed Freeman's partial dissent.

In the Philip Morris case, Chief Justice Robert Thomas (who succeeded McMorrow as chief justice) has recused himself from the case because of a conflict of interest.

During oral arguments in November 2004, Chicago attorney Joseph Power, Jr. took the lead for plaintiffs.

Power's inclusion on the case ostensibly knocked Thomas, a conservative Republican, off the bench.

Thomas, figured to be the most pro-business justice on the bench, recused himself because Power represents him in another matter.

Justice Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican elected to the Illinois Supreme Court last November, is expected to utter a pro-business voice in the decision.

According to another opinionated court worker, Karmeier may be the only person to vote for reversing Byron's decision.

All seemed to agree that the court's decision will define Byron's legacy.

Another common thought among courthouse employees is that there may be several concurring or dissenting opinions accompanying the decision, because of the sheer magnitude of the case.

Since the verdict, Philip Morris has been required to make bond payments to the county. To date, the company has paid close to $10 million. Here is the ledger:

Oct. 15, 2003: $1,120.64

Jan. 21, 2004: $205,323.55

April 14, 2004: $299,559.01

May 14, 2004: $5.40

July 15, 2004: $502,126.78

Oct. 15, 2004: $831,445.10

Jan. 14, 2005: $1,316,081.46

April 14, 3005: $1,657,417.29

July 15, 2005: $2,351,381.34

Oct. 17, 2005: $2,798,548.01

Total: $9,963,008.58

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