Most judges know what motions they can expect to hear on any given day, but not Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack.
Stack, the county’s asbestos judge, sets aside Wednesday and Friday mornings to hear motions brought by any attorney in any asbestos case.
“Some days there’s not much,” Stack said. “Other days, there are stacks of agreed orders for me to sign. Some days, attorneys step up and announce they have settled.”
“Some days, I get motions to dismiss, or for summary judgment, or forum non conveniens, but those usually come on Fridays.”
Hearings start at 10 a.m., rather than the customary 9 a.m.
“So many lawyers fly in from so far,” Stack said. “We don’t want them breaking any speed laws.”
That spur of the moment approach fits a pattern of unique treatment for asbestos cases. Stack believes those cases deserve unique treatment.
“There are very few cases wherein people were afflicted 30 to 50 years ago and all the results of that are now becoming known,” he said. “And when it does become known, the person dies in a short time.
“It is a rule in almost every state that a person in extremis deserves to be pushed ahead of the rest of the docket. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out. We can ease their pain a little bit on what’s going to happen after they are gone.”
The sheer number of parties requires unique treatment, Stack said.
“If you have 112 defendants,” he said, “that is hard to manage, and not just for the court. It’s hard for the defendants to manage.
“Try to get 100 lawyers together. You would have constant resettings. At least they know generally the days they are going to be here.”
Stack runs all asbestos litigation under a management order that the previous asbestos judge, Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron, signed in February 2004. Plaintiffs and defendants agreed on the order, Stack said.
“I have asked if anybody wants to amend or change it,” he said. “They are not ready to do something different. They all want to live with it until they come up with better ideas.”
On Wednesday, July 6, about a dozen attorneys chatted in Stack’s court while waiting for the judge. He breezed in at three minutes after ten, cracking jokes.
Kristine Kraft, of the St. Louis firm of Williams Venker & Sanders, did not laugh. She had expected to argue a motion to dismiss based on interstate forum non conveniens for Caterpillar, but she did not see Randy Gori, the attorney for the other side.
Gori, of the Edwardsville firm of Goldenberg, Miller, Heller & Antognoli, had sued Caterpillar and 89 other companies in February on behalf of Iowa resident James Schadt.
According to the suit, Schadt learned in December that he suffered from mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by asbestos fibers.
In March, Schadt asked for an expedited trial. Stack granted it and set it October 3.
Some defendants settled. Some moved to dismiss based on forum non conveniens and other grounds. Many defendants did not answer Schadt’s complaint at all.
Caterpillar moved July 5 to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. The motion stated that there was no evidence that Schadt ever lived, worked, sought medical treatment or was exposed to asbestos in Madison County.
The motion sought transfer to Scott County, Iowa, where Schadt lives.
A memorandum in support of the motion stated, “It is unreasonable to require Caterpillar to defend the action in Madison County, where the only connection to this forum is the location of plaintiffs’ attorneys.”
Caterpillar served notice that it would call the motion for hearing July 6 – the next day.
Despite the short notice, Kraft apparently expected Gori at the hearing. She approached the bench and spoke softly.
“He’s not here?” Stack asked.
"No," Kraft answered.
“You’ve tried to reach him?” he countered.
"Yes," Kraft said.
Someone in the room said he had just tried his cell phone but did not get through.
No one else brought any motions forward. Stack closed the hearing.
In his chambers a few minutes later, Stack said someone reached Gori. He said Gori thought the motion would come up Friday, July 8.
“It’s no big deal,” Stack said.