Supreme Court set to release opinion in Fennell v. Illinois Central

The Illinois Supreme Court anticipates that it will release an opinion Friday in a St. Clair County asbestos case over the doctrine of forum non conveniens. The justices earlier this week announced that they would hand down rulings in four cases, including Walter Fennell v. Illinois Central Railway Co., a case that has captured the attention of many Metro East asbestos attorneys, as well as a pair of statewide bar groups. The other three cases set for opinions Friday are: Deborah A. Orlando Cooney et al., v. Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., etc. (First District); EMC Mortgage Corp. v. Barbara J. Kemp (Second District); and Kenneth W. Mathis v. Terri D. Mathis (Fourth District). Argued before the high court in September, the Fennell case dates back to 2009, when Fennell sued Illinois Central. He claimed he developed respiratory problems as a result of being exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances during his career with the railroad company. Fennell brought a similar suit in his home state of Mississippi in 2002 along with 84 other current or former Illinois Central employees who lived in Mississippi or Louisiana. After the trial court there granted the railroad company’s motion to dismiss, he brought his suit to St. Clair County. Fennell's suit includes claims under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act and the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act, Illinois Central filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Mississippi would be a more convenient forum than St. Clair County because many of the parties and witnesses lived there. Fennell argued otherwise and pointed out that the defendant was represented by Boyle Brasher, a Belleville law firm that had collected a voluminous amount of evidence in the course of representing the company in similar litigation throughout the nation. St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto agreed with Fennell and denied Illinois Central’s motion to dismiss. And in January, a split panel of the Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed Cueto’s ruling. The majority of the panel – Justices James Donovan and Melissa Chapman -- determined that Fennell’s case did not present “the type of inherently local controversy that must be resolved in either Mississippi or Illinois.” Justice Thomas Welch, however, dissented, saying that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any nexus to Illinois, let alone to St. Clair County.” Illinois Central appealed and in May, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to review the case. Both the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) and the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel (IDC) submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in the case. The IDC sides with the dissent in Fennell and wrote in its brief  “there is a strong need for guidance from this Court as to the appropriate factors for the forum non conveniens analysis and the weight to be afforded to these factors.” The ITLA, however, wrote in its brief to the Supreme Court that a bright line approach to forum non conveniens is not needed because a multi-factor test is already in place. The group contends that “By creating the bogey man of a litigation crisis defense amici try to frighten this Court into taking a short-cut analysis around the multi-factor test.” Kenneth Halvachs, an attorney with Boyle Brasher in Belleville, represented Illinois Central in arguments before the Supreme Court and Chicago attorney J. Timothy Eaton represented Fennell.

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