Attorney sees asbestos rebound in Madison County

John O'Brien Oct. 27, 2010, 6:00am


WASHINGTON - To attorney James Stengel, Madison County's appeal to plaintiffs lawyers exceeded favorable judges and juries.

As a defense attorney, he once learned of a simple test to determine if a county will be problematic for him.

"Isolate any county south of the Mason-Dixon line named after a southern president," he said Wednesday to a laughing crowd at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform's Summit.

Stengel spoke at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform Summit Wednesday and also authored "Litigating in the Field of Dreams: Asbestos Cases in Madison County, Ill." on behalf of the ILR.

The ILR owns this publication.

Stengel said asbestos litigation, the longest running mass tort in U.S. history, has an impact on other cases.

"They speak volumes as to how tort litigation is conducted these days," Stengel said.

At the beginning of the century, a series of jury awards helped Madison County become a favorite target for plaintiffs lawyers, Stengel said. In 2000, a single plaintiff was awarded $34.1 million, and a husband and wife were awarded $16 million in 2001.

Two years later, a single plaintiff who alleged he was exposed to asbestos while working in Indiana was awarded $250 million, including $200 million in punitives.

"Judges in Madison County are elected, and the plaintiffs' trial bar was a reliable source of contributions for favored trial judges," Stengel wrote.

"There was obvious economic interest on the part of the plaintiffs bar which would derive a substantial benefit from locating this litigation in Madison County."

Even defense attorneys benefited from the increased amount of lawsuits, which provided a steady stream of work, Stengel says.

The Madison County Circuit Court adopted procedures to process asbestos claims faster than other jurisdictions, and the court presides over one-sixth of the mesothelioma deaths in America.

Stengel says the number of lawsuits being filed is increasing after a dip in the middle of the decade. There were 424 trial slots scheduled for 2009, 490 scheduled in 2010 and 520 scheduled for next year.

Out-of-state law firms can collect clients, then pass them on to local counsel and earn a referral fee or participate in a fee-splitting agreement, Stengel said. He called it a "hybrid structure as to who harvests these claims."

"After a false dawn in the mid-2000s, the county has continued along the path of a magnet or clearinghouse jurisdiction, adopting and maintaining procedural, and in some cases substantive, rules which attract large numbers of cases to the jurisdiction to the benefit of select local plaintiffs counsel and to the detriment of fairness and the due process right of defendants forced to litigate there," Stengel wrote.

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