Asbestos judge not concerned about Madison County's spike

Steve Gonzalez Apr. 7, 2008, 2:32am

After a three-year, steady decline in the number of asbestos cases filed in Madison County, the once busiest docket in the country is expanding.

But Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, the presiding asbestos judge, is not worried about the spike.

In 2007, there were 455 asbestos suits filed in Madison County, which is 130 cases more than the previous year. Prior to last year, there had not been a gain since 2003.

In 2006, there were 325 cases, the lowest number of asbestos filings since 1998, when 176 were filed. In 2005, there were 389.

Asbestos filings in Madison County:
1995: 273
1996: 65
1997: 556
1998: 176
1999: 425
2000: 411
2001: 889
2002: 809
2003: 953
2004: 473

Lately, a large number of asbestos cases filed are from plaintiffs who live outside of Illinois.

And as of March 21, 146 asbestos cases have been filed so far in Madison County in 2008. As many as 92 percent of those include plaintiffs living outside of Illinois.

According to Stack, not much can be done to curtail out-of-towners from filing their cases here.

"Nothing is being done to curb the filings as there is nothing that can be done," Stack said in an e-mail interview.

"I mean, the Circuit Clerk's office can't refuse them and the court can't simply sua sponte dismiss them."

He added that it is up to defendants to object to jurisdiction, venue or ultimately the convenience of the forum.

"But, there's nothing more that the court can do under the current law," Stack said. "Besides, as long as it doesn't cost our citizens in jury service, what real difference does it make?

"The judges are employees of and are paid by the state so the judicial expense on the intrastate (forum) issues is no different. We're either paying a judge in Madison County or one of the other counties."

Stack said cases that belong in other states are more likely to be dismissed, unless there is not a more convenient forum.

"Just who is being harmed here or whose 'ox is being gored,"' Stack asked.

"All defendants should know that with our amendment to the Standing Order and some of my prior rulings, they are going to get a timely hearing and a favorable ruling on forum if the case truly belongs in another forum," Stack said.

Stack also said that the he is not worried about the increase of cases at this point.

"The fact that there are a few hundred more being filed, doesn't mean that we're getting the same numbers or types of filings that we had been getting a few years ago," Stack said. "If it starts to get that way again, then I feel confidant that I will start seeing many more Forum Motions."

Stack recently spoke to plaintiff and defense attorneys at a national conference on asbestos litigation and told the group that defendants could bring things "to a screeching halt" by taking cases to trial in every instance and refusing to settle.

"It wouldn't take long for this court to determine that the cost in juror time and court time would probably require a closer scrutiny or a different rule regarding forum," Stack said.

He said in his estimation most defendants would not because it would cost many of those defendants, if not all of them, a lot more in attorney fees, expert witness fees and travel expenses if every case had to be filed in some small county that is "off the beaten path" and where the procedures would be more cumbersome.

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis added, "As to forum, if more than one potential forum exists, the court may invoke the doctrine of forum non conveniens, to determine the most appropriate forum."

"However, the judge only rules on this issue when a motion to dismiss is filed by the defendant, and the parties present their respective arguments to the sitting judge," Callis added.

Currently in most asbestos cases, forum non conveniens motions are filed, but individual defendants typically don't ask Stack for a hearing on the matter.

When asked about a potential new circuit rule regarding asbestos, Callis said that it is unlikely.

"We cannot issue a court rule that contravenes well-established Illinois law," Callis said, noting that there is an abundance of law on jurisdiction, venue and forum issues.

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