To the Editor:
The intentionally distorted and deceptively titled ‘Judicial Hellhole Report’ has been re-packaged and rolled out once again by the American Tort Reform Association as part of ATRA’s ongoing campaign to stoke prejudice and fear, and warp public understanding of our legal system.
ATRA is a major, well-funded front group working to undermine the civil justice system in order to help corporate interests avoid responsibility for their dangerous behavior and reckless actions. ATRA has received financial backing from a ‘who’s who’ of industry giants, including tobacco, oil, insurance and health care companies who have repeatedly been found negligent by the courts or have been sanctioned by the government and safety organizations because of their harmful conduct. To further boost record profits and executive pay, they are determined to block citizens from accessing the courts that their tax dollars fund.
Contrary to popular myth, very few individual Americans file lawsuits. In Illinois, more than 70 percent of lawsuits are initiated by businesses suing businesses or individuals for money. The number of all civil cases filed in Illinois is down 26 percent since 2007.
Illinois courts are fair and they provide an avenue for victims of wrongdoing to hold perpetrators accountable. Our legal system serves as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct, and that’s precisely why ATRA and Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), its Illinois mouthpiece, are so determined to shut down the ability of individuals to seek justice from the courts. ATRA and I-LAW’s funders do not truly fear frivolous lawsuits; they know our justice system screens out the very few suits that are without merit long before they get to trial. What actually concerns them are meritorious lawsuits – actions brought by citizens against industries producing dangerous products, putting reckless truck drivers on the roads, polluting our air and water, swindling their employees to pad their profits, or otherwise acting irresponsibly.
ATRA and I-LAW continually attack Madison County courts. But the judicial system in that county, where many asbestos-related cases are considered, is specifically – and sensibly – designed to act efficiently in hearing cases involving terminally ill people. If there’s any question about whether a case should be heard in that jurisdiction, the defendant’s attorney may seek to move it elsewhere. But in nearly all such cases, defense attorneys, who tend to be based in the area, don’t ask for a change in venue – they opt to continue in Madison County.
There is nothing frivolous or improper about mesothelioma victims, who are dying due to asbestos exposure at work, desiring to hold accountable the companies whose negligence is responsible for their painful fates. Nor is there anything untoward about courts moving expeditiously to hear these cases. When victims of asbestos-related disease seek justice, time is of the essence. It has been more than three decades since that toxic material was in wide commercial use and the number of people who may have suffered harm is dwindling. Unfortunately, many have passed away without the opportunity to pursue fair compensation for their injuries.
Legislation recently signed into law, removes the 10-year limit to bring a case in response to what medical science now tells us about the typical prolonged course of this horrible disease. Science makes all of the wonders of the modern world possible – from cell phones, to satellites, to lifesaving health care technologies – and it is only logical that we would use the insights furnished by modern research to revise our laws so that they reflect current knowledge, rather than continue to rely on thinking that is decades out of date. The law should not be static in the face of new information.
The real ‘judicial hellhole’ that ATRA, I-LAW and their financial backers wish to create is one that Illinoisans will not tolerate: a court system in which regular citizens have little chance for justice or even fair treatment because their rights have been stripped away by politicians and courts aligned with powerful corporate special interests. Cheap publicity stunts, like top 10 lists of purported ‘judicial hellholes’ concocted by paid lobbyists and shills, demean the U.S. Constitution, the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of trial by jury in civil matters involving monetary damages, and the lives and futures of catastrophically injured people.
John D. Cooney, President
Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.