Madison County's soaring asbestos docket has earned the court a spot on the American Tort Reform Association's (ATRA) "Judicial Hellhole" Watch List.
The annual report released today warns that the court's increasing number of asbestos cases and "questionable rulings" could sink Madison County back into Hellhole status after recent reforms involving abuses of the system, such as forum shopping.
Madison County had for several years occupied the Number 1 spot on the ATRA's Hellhole list because of its nationwide class action suits, a high number of out of state asbestos claims, high verdicts and what was described as "prejudicial" court rulings.
"This former #1 Judicial Hellhole, which in recent years had been on the road to reform, now seems headed in the wrong direction once again," said ATRA President Tiger Joyce. "Troubling signs include annual asbestos case filings approaching their all-time high, and the growing percentage of lawsuits brought by plaintiffs with no connection to the county."
Madison County's asbestos docket reached an all-time high of 953 cases in 2003. After now-retired Circuit Judge Daniel Stack took over the docket in 2004 and declared he would dismiss asbestos cases that did not belong in Madison County, the number of new cases declined. But that trend was reversed in 2007. This year, the number of new asbestos claims is expected to exceed 800.
An overwhelming number of Madison County's asbestos claims are filed by out of state plaintiffs through local counsel. According to a study by the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL), just 11 percent of claims are filed by people who live or work in the county or have some other connection to Madison County.
Stack, who retired Dec. 3, said on his way out that Madison County was an efficient and fair court for asbestos cases. He said that claims would be filed somewhere: "Do they (defendants) want to send lawyers to Iowa...and then drive two to three hours? Is that really more convenient?"
Ed Murnane, president of ICJL, countered Stack's logic.
"It may be logical for the plaintiffs but there is no monopoly on wisdom, efficiency, experience and convenience in Madison County," Murnane said. "There is a high concentration of plaintiffs' attorneys who like these cases and are very happy with Madison County as a venue."
Murnane also is chairman of the ATRA.
Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder, who took over the asbestos docket in July before Stack retired, has said she will follow the law when deciding whether cases belong in Madison County.
ATRA's report also criticized the increased number of asbestos trial slots added to accommodate Madison County's growing docket, saying that some defendants have reported the number of lawsuits filed against them here has doubled over the past four years.
"The number of asbestos trial slots has climbed from 424 in 2009, to 490 in 2010, and to 520 in 2011, the ATRA report states. "This places growing pressure on defendants to settle even meritless cases."
Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch said Madison County's Watch List status is "troubling news." He said that local elected officials as well as judges up for election and retention in 2012 should "pay attention to this report and work toward improving the legal climate in Madison County."
"Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch certainly will be watching them to see how they react to this report and I-LAW will continue to sound the alarm about the need for continued reform efforts in the Metro-East," Akin said.
Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis has been contacted for comment on the report.
Callis, Crowder, as well as Third Circuit Judges Dave Hylla, Charles Romani and John Knight will be up for retention in 2012.
The ATRA report also took note of an appellate court decision in September that reversed Stack in an asbestos case brought by the wife of a deceased railroad worker who resided outside of Illinois. The worker had lived in Texas, had worked in Ohio and Michigan and had no apparent connection to Madison County.
"If given proper respect by other trial courts, this sound appellate decision could significantly reduce brazen forum shopping by plaintiffs' lawyers throughout Illinois," the report states. "Hope springs eternal."
The ATRA report also mentioned a $43 million Madison County jury verdict against Ford in 2005, involving a Lincoln Town Car gas tank explosion after a high speed impact.
The verdict, upheld at the appellate level, is currently on appeal at the Illinois Supreme Court.
"Unless overturned, the logic of such a decision would require manufacturers to design and sell, at unfathomable prices, products that are literally indestructible and able to survive extremely unlikely accidents," the report states.
Another Madison County case singled out in the ATRA report involved a class action suit against Blimpie Subs by plaintiffs who claim they discovered their sandwiches did not contain double the meat of regular sandwiches.
"A 'where's the meat' lawsuit challenging whether Blimpie's sandwiches are 'Super Stacked' as advertised is yet another throwback to Madison County's days as 'America's Class-Action Capital,'" the report states.
However, ATRA praised a February asbestos jury verdict that went in favor of Ford.
"As the first asbestos trial of 2010 and the first heard by Judge Crowder, it may be reason for optimism," the report states.
ATRA: St. Clair County raises 'anxiety'
St. Clair County's new distinction as hosting an asbestos docket earned it a spot on the ATRA's Watch List.
"St. Clair County, also continues to raise anxiety among civil defendants," the report states. "Like its
Neighbor (Madison County), "St. Clair County is viewed by personal injury lawyers around the country as a choice jurisdiction in which to file their lawsuits."
In 2009, there were four asbestos cases filed in St. Clair County. As of Dec. 1, there were 53 new asbestos suits filed in St. Clair.
Murnane expressed concern over St. Clair County's growing asbestos docket.
"While Judge Crowder, and Judge Callis, seem to be open to reform and improvement, St. Clair seems to be going in the opposition direction," he said. "Right now, the numbers are not as overhwelming as Madison County's numbers but they need close scrutiny. The Appellate Court ruling should have the same restraining effect on St. Clair, we hope, and will keep the numbers from sky rocketing."
The ATRA report also pointed out retired Circuit Judge Michael O'Malley's transition into the private sector in July as a personal injury lawyer.
"That the former judge does not view his role-switch as the inherent conflict of interest that it obviously is would make for side-splitting backwoods satire were the sobering stakes not so high for the defendant," the report states.