ICJL plans to 'kick up' legislative agenda

Ann Knef Jan. 8, 2007, 11:49am

Ed Murnane

While he doesn't expect a Democratically-controlled state legislature to carry a civil justice reform banner, Illinois Civil Justice League President Ed Murnane is hopeful that his organization will gain ground in Springfield this session.

"We know we face a hostile environment," Murnane said. "It would be very easy for us to let (reform) go by the boards. But we don't think we can afford to do that."

Murnane said the ICJL plans to reintroduce a number of reform proposals including those related to venue, consumer protection litigation, expert witness/evidence, non-economic damages and jury service.

On the surface, the Democratic sweep of state-wide offices, accompanied by Democratic gains in the General Assembly, does not appear to bode well for civil justice reform advocates in Illinois.

"Legislators can be made to understand," Murnane said.

He said the challenge is to convince legislators that just as the health care crisis was serious and politically threatening in 2005, the threat to job growth, economic development and erasing Illinois' image as a hostile judicial environment are politically important this year.

Whether it's for the right reasons -- ideologically -- or wrong reasons -- fear of losing election -- Murnane believes the ICJL can convince Democratic legislators to get on board.

"We're going to be much more active and aggressive in putting a legislative agenda in front of legislators," Murnane said.

He hopes to rely on two Democrats serving on their respective Judiciary Committees, Sen. John Cullerton and Rep. John A. Fritchey, both of Chicago, who have in the past been helpful in advancing civil justice reform bills.

"They have been willing to talk, to discuss, offer advice and have meaningful conversations," Murnane said. "We think there is opportunity.

"I don't think it's hopeless."

The ICJL's legislative agenda includes:

Common sense venue: Lawsuits should be filed in the appropriate judicial venue. For years, Illinois has been a "magnet" lawsuit state and some counties, particularly Madison, St. Clair and Cook have been viewed as plaintiff friendly. It is not unreasonable -- nor does it deny plaintiffs access to justice -- to require that lawsuits be filed in court houses that make sense. To their credit, Madison County judges are implementing changes to accomplish that.

Consumer Protection Act Reform: Illinois is one of many states that needs to put a stop to unsound litigation based on alleged consumer protection act violations that do not involve an injury, loss or any actual damages. The notorious Philip Morris case in Madison County was one such case -- thrown out in part because there were no damages or losses.

As a report by the Manhattan Institute and American Tort Reform Association indicated last year:

"There's nothing rational about letting shameless lawyers shake down nail salon owners with inflated claims of unsanitary conditions when the same bottle of nail polish was used for multiple customers, and there's nothing rational about a multimillion-dollar class action filed against the maker of Listerine for making assertions about its effectiveness as compared to flossing when not a single plaintiff suffered a demonstrable injury. Yet these and thousands of economy-sapping cases like them could become routine if state legislatures and courts don't act decisively to keep such litigation from becoming the next big thing."

Expert witness/Expert evidence: The asbestos/silicosis lawsuit bonanza has underscored the importance of eliminating "junk science" and bogus and crooked expert witnesses from court rooms. Because Illinois is one of the major litigation centers in the U.S., our exposure to fraud is greater than most other states.

Full and Fair Non-Economic Damage Reform: Illinois legislators realized in 2005 that limits on non-economic damages made sense in medical liability cases. The same limits should be applied in all personal injury claims. No limits should be established on economic or actual losses but "pain and suffering" awards should be limited. In addition, defendants' wealth or degree of wrong-doing should not be a factor in determining non-economic damages.

Jury Service Reform: For several years, ICJL has been working to improve the jury system in Illinois by making it less burdensome for qualified jurors to serve and by eliminating excessive demands on employers of prospective jurors.

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