Top 10 stories in 2005: High court drama, local politics rule

Ann Knef Dec. 22, 2005, 4:34am

Justice Mary Ann McMorrow

From start to finish, the year 2005 has been packed with dramatic events. The Record's editorial board has selected the following as the 10 most compelling stories of 2005:

#1: Price v. Philip Morris overturned (12/15/05)
The Illinois Supreme Court overturned a $10.1 billion Madison County bench verdict, Price v. Philip Morris, canceling a bonanza that Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron awarded in 2003.

In a 4-2 decision announced Dec. 15, the court grounded its decision on a section of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which exempts conduct allowed by U.S. regulatory bodies.

Byron certified a class of 1.14 million plaintiffs. After trial in 2003, he ruled in their favor and calculated their damages at $7.1 billion, awarding more than $6,000 per plaintiff.

He directed a quarter of the award--$1.7 billion--to class counsel.

He added $3 billion in punitive damages and awarded it to the state of Illinois.

State consumer fraud law exempts defendants from claims if a state or federal regulatory agency has specifically authorized the conduct at issue.

Byron ruled that the Federal Trade Commission did not specifically authorize "light" labeling. The Supreme Court says it did.

#2: President Bush visits Madison County (1/5/05) and signs CAFA into law (2/18/05)
U.S. President George W. Bush used Madison County's Gateway Convention Center as a bully pulpit Jan. 5, calling on Congress to take action on tort reform this year.

"The United States Congress needs to pass real medical liability reform this year," President Bush said.

Standing before a backdrop of 100 lab-coated medical professionals, the president said he wanted Congress to adopt caps on non-economic damages, and reforms for class action filings, asbestos litigation and joint and several liability.

"The system is out of control," the president said repeatedly. "The system needs to be fixed."

On the president's first trip of the new year--and a first to Collinsville by a sitting U.S. president--he was quick to point out his purpose for being in southern Illinois.

"I think people in this part of the world understand," Bush said. "No one is healed by a frivolous lawsuit. The cause of justice is not served by frivolous lawsuits.

"Voters made their position very clear on election day."

The president pointed to the meteoric rise in the number of class action lawsuits filed in Madison County.

"The number of class actions rose 5000% from 1998 to 2003 even though the vast majority of defendants were not actually from Madison County," he said. "The proper place for massive class actions is not in local court but in federal court."

President signs CAFA into law
In a landmark bill signing ceremony President George W. Bush signed the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 into law Friday.

But before signing the bill, the president made several references to the Metro-East, including the significant number of cases filed in Madison County in the past week--20.

"And we're only in February," he said.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 in a 279-149 vote Thursday, and because of the flurry of class action filings taking place in Madison and St. Clair counties, the president hastened signing the bill into law.

"Madison County juries are responsible for awarding large verdicts," Bush said before signing the bill. "And the vast majority (involved) are not from Madison County."

The president also referred to a case involving a faulty TV that was settled in Madison County. Class members got $50 rebates for TVs from the same manufacturer and their lawyers got millions. (See related story: Lawyers wanted more money; class members wanted TV).

"Where's the justice in that?" the president quipped.

Bush said the bill would "help protect people who are wrongfully harmed while reducing the frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts, hurt the economy, cost jobs and burden American businesses."

#3: Caps on damages bill signed into law (8/25/05)
An against-all-odds legislative victory for medical liability reform advocates unfolded as Governor Rod Blagojevich finally signed the state's medical liability reform bill into law Aug. 25, the day before it would have become law automatically.

The bill caps non-economic damages for physicians at $500,000 and hospitals at $1 million. It also stipulates more stringent requirements for medical experts and insurance rate increases, as well as provides more oversight for wrong-doing doctors.

"A lot of Democrats don't agree with what I am about to do," Blagojevich remarked before signing the bill. And just as he lifted his pen, he even toyed with the crowd composed largely of medical professionals that anyone in the room opposed to his action ought to speak up.

The governor told the over-flow crowd at Saint Anthony's Hospital in Alton that he was personally opposed to "caps," but believed it was the right thing to do so that more people have access to healthcare.

Leadership and governing are about making decisions, Blagojevich said.

"It's also your mission as a public servant," he added.

Legislators, physicians and hospital officials crowded into the hospital's conference room to witness the landmark "caps" enactment.

#4: Supreme Court rips Avery on four fronts (8/18/05)
The Illinois Supreme Court threw out a billion dollar verdict ruling that a Williamson County Circuit Court erred in certifying a nationwide class, Avery v. State Farm, on Aug. 18.

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.

How could a plaintiff win a billion dollars in damages without proving a penny in damages?

How could a judge commit four colossal mistakes in one trial?

How could an appellate court uphold all four mistakes?

Answers leap from the pages of the Illinois Supreme Court's decision: According to the high court, the trial judge allowed a claim for breach of contract when there was no contract, allowed a fraud claim when there was no fraud, certified a class action when there was no class and awarded damages when there were no damages.

#5: Supreme Court slams forum shopping (11/17/05)
In a 6-0 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed lower court rulings and remanded a Louisiana man's case against State Farm Insurance back to Madison County with directions to dismiss the complaint based on forum non conveniens.

"We find that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying State Farm's motion to dismiss based upon forum non conveniens," wrote Chief Justice Robert Thomas in the Nov. 17 decision.

Christopher Gridley filed a class action complaint in Madison County on June 19, 2000, on behalf of himself and a proposed nationwide class against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. Gridley's complaint alleged unjust enrichment and violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act in connection with State Farm's sale of salvage vehicles.

A resident of Louisiana, Gridley filed suit as representative of a class of "all persons in the United States who purchased an automobile which was previously declared a 'total loss' by State Farm, and for which State Farm failed to obtain a salvage title."

#6: 153 asbestos/silicosis suits filed (9/27/05)--Silicosis litigation raising red flags (9/29/05)--Retired workers unwitting plaintiffs (10/20/05)

A hefty volume of cases crushed the Madison County Circuit Clerk's office Sept. 27 as a St. Louis asbestos litigation firm filed 153 lawsuits.

Plaintiff's attorney Robert Brooks Ramsey of Brent Coon & Associates in St. Louis filed 139 asbestos and 14 silicosis lawsuits on behalf of former State of Illinois workers. The Coon firm is based in Beaumont, Texas.

The asbestos plaintiffs'--whose individual suits name 87 defendants--claim they were exposed to asbestos-containing products and/or machinery while they worked for the state. Damages are being sought for negligence, strict liability and wilful and wanton misconduct.

Asbestos defendants include John Crane, Georgia-Pacific, Kelly Moore Paint, General Electric, Union Carbide, Bondex International and Ford Motor Company.

Red Flags
A day after an aggressive national asbestos litigation firm deluged Madison County Circuit Court with 153 asbestos and silicosis lawsuits, it returned with another 19.

Each silicosis plaintiff names 49 defendants. Some of those defendants include, American Optical Corp., Allied Minerals, Flexo Products, Lockheed Martin and U.S. Silica Company.

The silicosis suits claim the plaintiffs were exposed to silica and silica-containing products while working in various facilities.

A current federal investigation examining questionable diagnoses and the possibility of thousands of fraudulent silicosis claims made in Texas, may explain concerns over the flush of recent silicosis lawsuits brought here.

"Retreading," which refers to silicosis claimants who have previously filed suit for asbestos-related diseases, prompted U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in Texas to send a stern warning last February. The judge characterized evidence showing that more than half of 8,629 silicosis claimants had also filed asbestos claims in Corpus Christi as "great red flags of fraud."

A New York federal grand jury is looking into the matter.

The new silicosis lawsuits brought by Texas litigator Brent Coon & Associates to Madison County raise some questions. Of the 33 silicosis suits filed over a two-day period (Sept. 27-28), 11 of the plaintiffs have also filed asbestos lawsuits in the Third Circuit.

Unwitting plaintiffs

Retired locomotive makers who filed asbestos suits in Madison County in September did not know they had filed the suits until they heard about it from a reporter.

Eight plaintiffs interviewed by the Record said no one told them they had become litigants. Six said they did not know where Madison County was.

Attorney Brent Coon of Beaumont, Texas, delivered their complaints and 130 others to the courthouse in boxes on Sept. 27.

The complaints did not give addresses for plaintiffs, not even cities or counties. The complaints did not give middle initials.

Peculiar names, however, marked a trail that led to United Auto Workers Local 719, near Chicago and Electro-Motive, a factory in McCook that built railroad locomotives.

Seven plaintiffs told the Record they worked at Electro-Motive, which once employed more workers than any other in the Chicago area. In 1979, more than 14,000 Electro-Motive workers built five and a half locomotives a day.

All trades in the factory belonged to UAW Local 719, skilled or not.

Today the factory is gone, the property is bare, but the union carries on.

#7: Defendant John Crane, plaintiff's foil (6/10/05)
A funny thing happened on the way to a $250 million Madison County jury verdict.

When U.S. Steel sent Chicago attorney Edward Matushek to defend the company in an asbestos trial there in 2003, Matushek noticed something strange. In jury selection, attorneys for two other defendants conferred with attorneys for the plaintiff.

"I had never seen that occur in voir dire before in my entire career," said Matushek, of Matushek, Niles & Sinars, in a June 9 interview.

As it turned out, the Madison County jury ruled against U.S. Steel in the highest jury verdict ever awarded in the venue, and in favor of an Indiana plaintiff in Whittington v. U.S. Steel. The other defendants, Georgia Pacific and John Crane Inc., came through clear. But it was not free for Georgia Pacific, which settled with Whittington for an undisclosed amount.

Last week the Record reported an explosive exchange among attorneys in an asbestos trial over John Crane's dismissal from the suit. Defense attorney for General Electric, John Fitzpatrick, stated that plaintiff attorney David Greenstone made a "sweetheart deal" with John Crane by not presenting any evidence or listing any witnesses against John Crane.

"(This is) an improper use of the court and it borders on fraud," said Fitzpatrick of Leclair Ryan in Richmond, Va.

He also told Stack that in jury selection, John Crane Inc., had struck prospective jurors favorable to the defense.

Matushek's experience two years earlier parallels Fitzpatrick's.

"In my opinion," Matushek said, "the peremptory challenges used by those co-defendants (Whittington v. U.S. Steel) helped the plaintiff by striking jurors who appeared favorable to the defense.

"The court's allocation of six challenges per side became, in effect, 10-to-two in favor of the plaintiff."

Ed Burns, of O'Connell & Associates in Elgin, has been the lead defense attorney for John Crane during trials and motion hearings.

Over the years, he has vigorously opposed transfer of venue cases out of Madison County, stating his client does significant business in the county. Leaving, he has said, would "hurt" his clients' business because it would appear as if John Crane had something to hide.

When asked to respond to Fitzpatrick's claim that John Crane makes deals with plaintiffs, Burns chose not to respond. But his partner Dan O'Connell of O'Connell & Associates denied an improper relationship with asbestos plaintiffs.

"That is a bunch of BS," O'Connell said in an earlier interview. "We do not have a sweetheart deal with the plaintiff's bar."

#8: Moran not seeking retention (12/19/05)

Madison County Circuit Judge George Moran Jr., 57, is not seeking judicial retention in the November 2006 general election.

He will serve the remainder of his term which expires Dec. 6, 2006, and then retire.

Moran, a judge since 1977, said he believed he would have won retention, but stepping down was "the right thing to do."

"The decision is fair to Republicans and Democrats and the voters," Moran said.

An article in the Dec. 11 St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Moran indicated that trial lawyers were trying to force him off the bench because of unfavorable rulings.

A month ago Moran transferred a personal injury case against Pfizer to Cook County, citing the Illinois Supreme Court's "Gridley" decision that slammed forum shopping.

Moran was the only judicial candidate seeking retention not to receive the endorsement of the Madison County Central Democratic Committee several months ago.

Had he remained in the race, Moran said he would have been subjected to vicious attacks.

#9: Kardis retirement looms large (8/17/05)
Faced with the third judicial appointment since winning the Illinois Supreme Court race last year, Justice Lloyd Karmeier's influence in reshaping local courts is beginning to unfold.

Yesterday's announcement by Madison County Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis that he will retire Sept. 2 may not have surprised seasoned court observers, but it has prompted speculation about his replacement.

Likely contenders among Madison County Republicans include Alton attorney Steve Stobbs and assistant state's attorney Don Weber.

"Yes I will consider it," Stobbs said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Stobbs, of Godfrey, is a partner with Stobbs & Sinclair. He is a Madison County Board member and chairs its Judiciary Committee.

During Karmeier's campaign, Stobbs' political committee spent $565.19 for postage to mail an endorsement post card to constituents in October 2004.

Karmeier will submit a name for Kardis' replacement to the Illinois Supreme Court, which traditionally honors the recommendation of the justice in which the vacancy exists. The new Third Circuit judge would have to run for election in November 2006.

The circuit includes Madison and Bond counties.

Weber, an assistant state's attorney and household name in Madison County, could not be reached for comment.

Renowned for his prosecution of child killer Paula Sims--and the coauthor of Precious Victims which details the case--Weber ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois Supreme Court in 1992, losing to Justice Moses Harrison.

#10: Weber chosen to fill Kardis slot (10/31/05)
Edwardsville attorney and assistant Madison County state's attorney Don Weber has been appointed resident circuit judge in the Third Judicial Circuit.

The transition from prosecutor to judge will be swift. Weber will be sworn into office at 9 a.m. Wednesday, most likely by Madison County Chief Judge Edward Ferguson.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who recommended Weber fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Phillip Kardis, will conduct a more formal swearing-in ceremony at 3 p.m. Friday.

A jubilant Weber, who has said that being a prosecutor is the "best thing" you can do with a law license, believes his new career will be as satisfying.

"There is a perception that the judicial system is not fair," Weber said.

"As a judge, it will not be my job to see that people are happy when they leave my courtroom. It's my job that they leave feeling that they've been treated fairly."

Weber said he believes he will get along well with his new colleagues in the Third Circuit.

"I have my views," said Weber, an unabashed conservative Republican.

"What I want to do is level the playing field. I've been a prosecutor for 30 years. I have vast experience."

Top Story Runners-Up:
McGlynn/Spomer appointed to appellate court (6/8/05)
Madison County workers go on strike (10/12/05)
Madison County hits Ford with $43 million verdict (4/19)
Gordon Maag casts wider net in federal suit (10/3)
Jurors award $500k in MC asbestos case (5/19)
Jury reaches verdict in favor of GE (6/3)
William Norton appointed St. Clair County Circuit Judge (2/11/05)

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Organizations in this Story

Madison County Circuit Court
157 N Main St
Edwardsville, IL 62025

133 Peachtree St NE
Atlanta, GA 30303

Illinois Supreme Court
200 E Capitol Ave
Springfield, IL 62701

Ford Motor Company
1 American Rd
Dearborn, MI 48126

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