Asbestos lawsuit reform requires leadership in Springfield

2012 began on a sour note with the release of a report showing that the number of asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County has increased significantly for the last several years. We hit a high of 953 asbestos suits filed in 2003. The number dropped to less than half of that the following year (477) and kept falling through 2006 (325). Sadly, in 2007, it started rising again, and last year tied the 2003 record. Thanks to our willingness to accept filings from out-of-state plaintiffs, Madison County has reclaimed its status as the busiest asbestos docket in the country. Circuit Court Judge Barbara Crowder seemed to dream of setting new records. Last December, she assigned more than 500 trial slots for the 2013 asbestos docket, most for cases not yet existing and with no connection to Madison. The law firms awarded the bulk of the slots had made generous contributions to Crowder’s campaign committee. So brazen was this apparent pay-to-play scheme that Crowder was stripped of her docket. Her replacement, Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison, found “no continuing need for the pre-assignment of trial settings.” That was a step in the right direction. What we really need is a commitment on the part of our state legislators to promote asbestos lawsuit reform. Their peers in the Buckeye State have the right idea. This past Tuesday, Ohio legislators passed a bill to discourage duplicative asbestos lawsuits by requiring plaintiffs to reveal all asbestos claims made on their behalf. Because asbestos suit settlements are kept confidential, it’s hard to tell when plaintiffs are double-dipping – winning settlements from defendants in asbestos lawsuits and making claims against one or more asbestos trusts as well. The Ohio law is a sensible remedy towards curbing the abuse of our asbestos courts and trusts. Thanks to State Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon), similar legislation is expected to be drafted soon in Springfield. Kay indicated he would model a bill after Ohio's law saying it is “necessary to take proactive steps to ensure the transparency of asbestos claims.” Let's hope Illinois legislators get it right by enacting a sensible transparency bill in the new year. That would be a sweet beginning.

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