Venue reform is heard before Senate Judiciary Committee

Ed Murnane

Bolstered by a powerful Illinois Supreme Court decision that puts a noose around venue shoppers, legal reform advocates touted guidelines for where lawsuits should be filed during a state senate hearing in Chicago on Thursday.

Madison County was exhibit "A" as supporters and opponents discussed the merits of S.B. 1724, which portends to stop "forum shopping" within Illinois, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But an asbestos attorney claimed that Madison County's reputation as a plaintiff haven is exaggerated.

"The system isn't broken. The system works fine. It works well for all," said William R. Fahey, an attorney with the asbestos specialist firm of Cooney & Conway in Chicago.

Fahey appeared in opposition to the measure. He was pressed by State Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Winfield).

"Do you think there's any problems in Madison County? Or is it your view that its reputation is undeserved?," asked Roskam.

"I think that it's overexaggerated," replied Fahey. "(Madison County) is the victim of a marketing ploy."

Much of the ammunition supporting passage of the venue reform bill came from a study issued by the Illinois Civil Justice League, "Litigation Imbalance," a 10-year analysis of major civil litigation filing in Illinois.

The report, which examines Illinois' venue disparities from 1994 through 2003, indicates that Madison County is more than four times as litigious as the average of 101 counties outside Cook, and twice as litigious as Cook County.

Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, said passage of S.B. 1724 would help end court-shopping by "opportunistic trial lawyers."

"Illinois remains a haven for out-of-state lawyers filing lawsuits in
Illinois courts that have little connection to the state of Illinois," Rickard stated. "This rampant court-shopping has created a hostile business climate that puts Illinois jobs at risk."

According to the ICJL report, Madison County has a "Litigation Index" score of 8.077 lawsuits per thousand residents and Cook County has 4.338 lawsuits per thousand residents.

Ed Murnane, president of the ICJL, said it should come as no surprise that civil litigation filings in Madison County surpassed all others in the state as indexed. But he also believes that Madison County would rank as more litigious than "all counties in the entire U.S."

"One trend appears to have remained constant and even grown: the disproportionate filing of major civil lawsuits in specific venues in Illinois," the report states.

"A major venue imbalance exists among the case filing levels between the First and Fifth Appellate Districts and the Second, Third and Fourth Appellate Districts."

Since 1994, an estimated 340,000 major civil lawsuits have been filed in Illinois, roughly one lawsuit for every 36 citizens in Illinois.

The report also suggests that excessive civil filings place a burden on taxpayers.

"Despite the fact that major civil actions occupy less than one percent of the overall judicial docket, an immense amount of time and public resources are put into providing judges, juries and clerks to arbitrate these claims," it states.

"In Madison County for example five of the 19 judges are assigned to the Law Division. State and local taxpayers spend $3.1 million to run a 77-employee circuit clerk office. Major civil cases take an average of 36.6 months to reach verdict.

"More than $4 million is proposed in Madison County's 2006 budget to run Circuit Court and Circuit Clerk operations and another $6 million was recently expended to add new courtrooms and expand court facilities."

David Knowles, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the hearing was a good step toward legislating venue reform in Illinois.

“Illinoisans are fed up with personal injury lawyers playing the lawsuit lottery in Illinois,” said Knowles.

“Illinois is one of the top five most lawsuit happy states in the country, according to a Harris Interactive survey, and venue shopping is one of the main reasons why we’ve earned this reputation."

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