Madison County ranks No. 3 in Judicial Hellhole study

Madison County has been named one of the nation’s least fair civil court jurisdictions in the American Tor Reform Association’s (ATRA) 2012-2013 “Judicial Hellholes” report.

Released Thursday, the annual report put Madison County third on the list of so-called judicial hellholes behind California at No. 1 and West Virginia in second.

This year’s ranking marks a two-spot jump for Madison County, which came in at No. 5 with St. Clair County in the ATRA’s 2011-2012 report.

In a written statement, ATRA President Sherman "Tiger" Joyce said that Madison County’s “filings of new asbestos lawsuits” makes it “poised to set another record this year.”

Routinely discredited by trial lawyer groups, the annual report is based on a national survey commissioned by the ATRA and Sick of Lawsuits. Luce Research conducted this year’s survey of 1,013 voters via telephone between July 11 and July 19.

Belleville attorney Gregory Shevlin, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ILTA), said the ATRA annual reports are “arbitrary” and attack “different places for different reasons without having a basis.”

“When people realize ATRA is funded by corporate giants …, they know the only reason for the report is to try to give them an upper hand,” Shevlin said. “It’s the same report we see year after year. The story stays the same, but some of the rankings change.”

According to the report, “Madison County is to asbestos litigation what the Dallas Cowboys once were and would like to be again to professional football.”

This year, the report states, Madison County “maintained its dominance over the rest of the nation when it comes to new asbestos claims” with about 800 asbestos case filed as of Sept. 30.

"Even worse,” the report adds, “is the fact that only about 1 in 10 of the county’s asbestos cases are filed by people who actually live or work there and asbestos claims comprise roughly 60 percent of all lawsuits seeking more than $50,000.”

Travis Akin of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse said in a statement that being dubbed as one of the worst judicial hellholes in the country hampers job growth in the Metro-East area, which had 1,300 fewer jobs this October than last.

“Businesses look to move to places where the legal system is fair, so having the nation’s third-most unfair lawsuit climate in the country is clearly keeping businesses and the jobs they bring from moving to Madison County,” Akin said.

He added, “We have a broken court system in Madison County that is creating lawsuits, not jobs.  Judges here need to take steps to restore fairness and common sense to our courts so we can begin to create jobs, not lawsuits.”

On top of numbers, the ATRA report mentioned last year’s controversy over $30,000 in contributions to Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder’s campaign committee from area asbestos lawyers and firms. Chief Judge Ann Callis reassigned Crowder, whose committee returned the donations in question.

The report also took notice of Associate Judge Clarence Harrison’s decision to eliminate Madison County’s longstanding advanced trial setting system.

 “Harrison deserves credit for eliminating the patently unfair trial date allocation system that had enabled favored local law firms to market their inventory of empty trial slots to allied law firms across the country,” the report states.

“But the new system he’s implemented requires plaintiffs’ lawyers to file motions to set cases for trial, and it is now being eyed as one reason 2012’s new asbestos filings are expected to set a record,” the report states, adding that Harrison has also “sent mixed signals” in his rulings on forum non conveniens motions.

Shevlin, however, said he believes “Madison County has done a lot of things to better their image” this year.

He said Callis “has done tremendous things,” including establishing the foreclosure mediation program, “which doesn’t help anybody but people.”

Shevlin also praised the court for changing how asbestos trial dates are set, which was "done in the open and not behind closed doors.”

The ATRA report also mentioned Swansea attorney Judy Cates’s election to the Fifth District Appellate Court, saying that "the election of a former head of the Illinois plaintiffs’ bar to the appellate bench overseeing its courts provides new reason for concern."

In addition, this year’s report put Cook County on the ATRA’s “Watch List.”

Joyce said in a written statement that while things have been relatively calm in Cook County, it is “still known for expansive liability, excessive verdicts and plaintiff-friendly treatment of civil defendants.”

Concerns aside, the report acknowledged that legislatures in Missouri and Ohio undertook “positive tort reforms” this year to “protect property owners from undue liability to trespassers.”

Other positive signs in 2012, the reports states, are "state supreme court decisions in Illinois and Kansas, respectively limiting liability to trespassers and non-economic damages in medical liability cases are also cited as positive developments.

The report is referencing the state high court’s September ruling in the First District case of Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co.

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