Another local government may join call for legal reform

By Ed Murnane | Nov 11, 2007

We reported just a month ago that the movement for civil justice reform in Illinois has been actively and aggressively supported by local governments, including municipalities, park districts, school districts, public transportation providers and others.

The reason: they are prime targets of lawsuits and their attackers realize they are "deep pockets," meaning they have -- or can raise -- large dollars for settlements or jury awards.

When the Illinois Civil Justice League was in its early stages, back in 1993, local governments played a significant role in describing the problems of excessive -- and at times frivolous -- litigation against them.

In one of the ICJL's first public forums, the then-superintendent of schools in Granite City, Steve Balen, said liability costs had risen by 100 percent in the previous 10 years in the Madison County community.

"People are realizing that is a simple way to get a lot of money, Balen said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story. "My insurance carrier probably will settle for $15,000 in a lot of cases because if is cheaper to do that than fight the claims in court.

"There has to be penalties" for frivolous liability claims, he continued. "There has to be systems of investigation. The money is too easy to get."

The comments from former superintendent Balen are typical of comments expressed by others -- doctors, small businesses, local governments and property owners especially: it is cheaper to settle than to fight the claims in court.

Many local governments realize they can and should join the fight against excessive (and in some cases fraudulent or frivolous) litigation and that's one of the reason more and more local government units are taking steps and expressing their concerns.

Just a few weeks ago, the City of Peoria passed a resolution calling for the Illinois General Assembly to pass meaningful lawsuit reform legislation.

Several years ago, the resolutions passed in Carbondale and Marion, both in Southern Illinois, were instrumental in the continued effort for reform in that part of Illinois.

Last week, the DuPage County board took a step toward adopting a similar resolution when the Legislation and Governmental Affairs committee of the Board unanimously recommended passage. DuPage County is the second largest county in Illinois and it carries appropriate weight, which could motivate other local governments to act. In addition to being the second largest county, population-wise, it also has the second highest number of civil lawsuits filed every year.

Cook County is not on the immediate horizon but a county with more excessive litigation than any in Illinois could save millions if it could cut lawsuit costs. Outgoing State's Attorney Richard Devine expressed that view several years ago. And Cook County, like many units of government in Illinois, is facing serious financial problems.

The City of Chicago also has made no secret of its opposition to proposals and legislation that increase litigation costs.

While there are limits to what local governments can do to implement policies internally, they can send a message to Springfield to let legislators know that litigation-friendly policies have an adverse, even crippling, impact on the local governments (schools, municipalities, parks, counties, townships, library districts).

Legislators usually (not always) have antennae that are tuned to the local needs and concerns, particularly if those concerns are expressed through resolutions passed by local governments.

So go to it DuPage and all the others that are considering similar positive steps.

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