Judges not worried about Madison County asbestos upsurge

By Steve Gonzalez | Jul 26, 2007

Asbestos chief Judge Stack

Judge Ann Callis

After a three year decline in the number of asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County, new complaints are on the rise in 2007.

Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, the county's presiding asbestos judge, said he has no idea why asbestos cases are increasing this year and is not concerned with the upsurge just yet.

But Stack, who also is the circuit's Madison County's chief civil judge, said he would be concerned if the asbestos numbers continually trend higher as they did in 2002 when there were 809 cases and in 2003 when the all-time high of 953 was reached.

"No judge wants his docket to increase," Stack said. "As long as the (asbestos) cases are appropriate and belong here, the increase does not bother me."

In 2006, a total of 325 asbestos cases were filed in Madison County. As of June 30, 227 asbestos cases have been filed here, and a vast majority of them are complaints from out-of-state plaintiffs.

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis also did not express alarm at the apparent increase in asbestos filings.

She commended Stack for his handling of the county's huge asbestos docket which he took over in 2004, vowing to kick out cases that didn't belong in Madison County.

"I have the utmost confidence in Judge Stack," Callis said.

Stack speculated that the increase may be due to secondary exposure claims. For instance, more and more plaintiffs are alleging they were exposed to airborne asbestos fibers while laundering the clothing of individuals exposed first-hand.

Madison County's largest asbestos firm, SimmonsCooper of East Alton, has filed at least 35 second-hand exposure suits so far this year by out-of-staters -- namely plaintiffs from California, Texas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Alabama and Florida -- and almost all of the cases have been answered by defense with forum non conveniens motions.

Stack took over the asbestos docket from Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron in 2004 and immediately had an impact on its administration.

In his first forum ruling as chief of the nation's largest asbestos case docket, Stack argued the "astronomical burden" of looming trials demanded he dismiss cases that were not connected directly to Madison County.

"In Paul & Lorraine Palmer v. Riley Stoker Corp. et. al., Stack ordered the case moved to a courtroom closer to "where the plaintiff claims (asbestos) exposure."

The Palmers, represented by the asbestos specialty firm Wise & Julian of Alton, live in Baton Rouge, La.

Stack pondered how Madison County would hold up if every asbestos lawsuit filed in its courts did go to trial, suggesting that the "cash cow" asbestos docket would quickly overwhelm local taxpayer resources to the expense of plaintiffs.

"It is not the function of the courts to make money," Stack wrote. "This is not a 'business.' It is the function of the courts to administer justice."

The Palmers filed suit in February 2004, charging asbestos negligence against eighty-seven companies, a list that included familiar names like Ford, General Motors, Exxon, Shell, Sears, BP and Viacom.

Stack's ruling followed a hearing on joint motions by several defendants to transfer the suit because Madison County was not a convenient location in which to try the case.

"Mr. Palmer worked in Louisiana, lived in Louisiana his entire life and his and Mrs. Palmer's residence is located approximately 15 miles from the courthouse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and is approximately 700 miles from this court," Stack wrote.

Asbestos lawyers immediately took notice and new asbestos filings immediately declined and have so ever since, with the exception of this year.

In 2004, 477 asbestos cases were filed, representing a decrease of 476 cases from the year before. In 2005, 389 new cases were filed. And last year' 325 cases marked the lowest number of cases since 1998 when 176 were filed.

Stack has kept his promise by dismissing cases that have no connection to Madison County.

Just last week, he got rid of a case filed by the Goldenberg firm in Edwardsville. In that instance Edwardsville attorney Barney Schulz of Heyl Royster, representing Union Carbide, Bayer Cropscience, Essex Specialty Products and Dow Chemical, argued that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiff resided in Utah.

Stack agreed and dismissed the case based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens.

Goldenberg lawyers then began voluntarily dismissing other cases.

Another reason for this year's increase may be due to the 2006 elections when Democrats took control of congress.

"Once the Democrats took control the asbestos reform bill was never going to make it onto the floor for debate," a Madison County asbestos attorney said on condition his name not be published.

Since 1994, 6,286 asbestos cases have been filed in Madison County, not counting the 226 filed this year.

Breakdown of asbestos cases by year:

2007 (as of June 30) 226

2006: 325

2005: 389

2004: 477

2003: 953

2002: 809

2001: 889

2000: 411

1999: 425

1998: 176

1997: 556

1996: 65

1995: 277

1994: 292

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Heyl Royster The Dow Chemical Company

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