When I first heard that Madison and St. Clair counties had dropped to fifth place (from third) on the 2013 American Tort Reform Association’s “judicial hellhole” list, I was pleased. “At least we’re not number one,” I thought. Upon reflection, I was not so happy. “Why are we on this list at all and what purpose does it serve?” I wondered. I recall when Madison County first made the top of the list and I thought it was terrible. How could a county with a cross section of the Midwest as jurors be a “hellhole”? So, I did some digging and found out a bit of background about ATRA.
According to its Web site (atra.org), “Since 1986, [ATRA is] the only national organization exclusively dedicated to reforming the civil justice system. A nationwide network of state-based liability reform coalitions backed by 135,000 grassroots supporters. An unparalleled track record of legislative success.
"ATRA was founded in 1986 by the American Council of Engineering Companies. Shortly thereafter, the American Medical Association joined them.”
So, we can assume labor unions do not sponsor ATRA.
ATRA’s President since 1994, Sherman Joyce, graduated Princeton University and Catholic University Law School. He served as Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator John C. Danforth (R-MO) until 1984. In 1987, after being admitted to the Virginia Bar, he became minority counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where he worked on product liability legislation.
So, we can assume Mr. Joyce is not a Democrat.
It should come as no surprise then that ATRA does not enthusiastically embrace mass torts.
Then president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Gregory L. Shevlin, earlier this year wrote, “ATRA, and its Illinois affiliate, Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (ILAW), are among the many front groups around the country created to help corporations evade responsibility for wrongdoing by undermining the civil justice system. ATRA has received funding from a 'who’s who' of corporate giants interested in minimizing their financial exposure and avoiding accountability for acts and practices that cause harm and injury, including Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Dow Chemical, Exxon, Aetna, Geico, State Farm, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson….”
So, what appears to be a public-interest group warning people where not to get sued, is anything but. It is the other side of a conflict over laws allowing individuals to sue in Madison or St. Clair counties for harm done by individuals or corporations that have a connection to those counties. Is that a reach? Possibly, but I do not make the laws.
The judiciary in Madison and St. Clair counties has not been without its problems; the musical chairs on the asbestos docket and the recent scandal involving St. Clair county jurists notwithstanding, justice for injured citizens should not be sacrificed. If a person or group is harmed due to the negligence or outright disregard for their wellbeing, then that entity causing such harm must face justice. Insofar as justice is concerned, a jury is the best we have to mete it out. If a judge or jury tend to favor the plaintiff over the defendant based on fact, then so be it. I would ask ATRA to define what alternative to a bench or jury trial they advocate.
So, let them call courts hellholes (if they want to be clever) and let them warn they are places where companies do not want to be sued. Fear is a great motivator of behavior and, so long as careless businesses fear putting you and me in danger, I welcome such a designation. Piercing the corporate veil is a better alternative than an illness caused by a bad pharmaceutical or an injury caused by corporate neglect.
Jim Grandone owns Grandone Media Strategies and provides Litigation PR and Strategic Counsel to law firms practicing in Illinois and Missouri.