Declining number of lawsuits, fewer class actions, dismissals of out-of-state asbestos cases and positive changes in the handling of medical liability cases are reasons the American Tort Reform Association gives for moving Madison County, and St. Clair County, off its "Judicial Hellhole" list.
The annual report released on Tuesday moved both jurisdictions ATRA claims are "joined at the hip" onto its "Watch List."
It praised and credited Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis for improvements.
"In less than two years since winning the job as top judge, Callis's drive for equal justice is steadily gaining ground," the report states.
It also gives due to Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, chief of the circuit's Civil Division, for dismissing numerous Vioxx claims where the plaintiff did not reside in the county.
"For example, in July 2007 Stack transferred two Vioxx claims from Madison County to other jurisdictions in Illinois with closer connections to the cases," the report states. "He has also put a stop to procedures that placed defendants at a distinct disadvantage.
"In February 2007, Stack rejected an attempt by a plaintiffs' lawyer to join 10 claims in a single trial as a cost-effective alternative alternative to holding individual trials.
"The consolidated claim was divided into 10 individual lawsuits with two transferred to other counties and a third dismissed. The same attorney has filed roughly 125 Vioxx claims in Madison County, many of which have multiple plaintiffs."
Other highlights of the report:
Class actions on the decline
"Formerly referred to as 'the class action capital of the United States,' the number of class actions filed in Madison County is drastically lower than in its Hellholes heyday.
"Rising from only two class action filings in 1998 to the peak of 106 in 2003, the filings slowly started to subside with 87 in 2004, 56 in 2005 and only three in 2006.
"Although the sharp decline in class action filings can be credited in large part to enactment of the Class Action Fairness Act, Judge Callis's reforms have played a part, too. She and other circuit judges adopted a rule limiting the substitution of judges in a class action."
But asbestos claims rise
"While Madison County judges are not concerned, the number of asbestos cases being filed in Madison County rose in 2007 following three years of decline.
"Specifically, personal injury lawyers filed 325 asbestos cases in Madison County in all of 2006 while lawyers had filed 227 just halfway through 2007.
"Judge Stack, who has successfully managed the asbestos docket by transferring or dismissing claims of plaintiffs from outside of the county, is not worried about the increase. He attributes it to a rise in secondary exposure claims, in which lawyers widen the asbestos litigation by suing on behalf of family members claiming to have been exposed to asbestos at home through contact with a family member who worked with the substance."
Fairness in the courts?
"Rather than face unfair odds by going to trial, many Madison County defendants for years chose to cut their losses by settling cases out of court. But today, at least some defendants believe they can get a fair trial.
"For example, in March 2007, the stage appeared set for yet another multimillion-dollar plaintiff verdict. The case revolved around a woman who died of a heart attack at age 52 after taking Vioxx, the once widely prescribed pain reliever, for 20 months.
"But in the first of such trials in the county, the jury surprised many observers by returning a defense verdict for Merck, the drug's manufacturer. Jurors were not distracted by emotional appeals from plaintiff's counsel and instead stuck to the facts in determining that Merck had adequately warned physicians of the drug's side affects.
"The defense verdict suggests that times may truly be changing in Madison County."
Reform for medical liability claims
"Runaway medical liability litigation in the county had spurred skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums which, in turn, had caused many physicians to flee to neighboring jurisdictions.
"Court dockets were crowded by cases without merit that invariably delayed justice for worthy claimants. So Judge Callis created the Medical Legal Committee to address the problem.
"On June 18, 2007, Madison County judges adopted rules recommended by the committee 'to alleviate the burden to the parties of protracted litigation in medical malpractice actions, to further the administration of justice, and to prevent unnecessary delay.'
"The new rules provide for mandatory mediation in malpractice cases and require that a circuit review panel examine the cases to ensure proper disposition."
St. Clair County
The report notes that St. Clair County has seen a decline in the number of large cases filed.
"In 2002 and 2003, respectively, lawyers filed 909 and 842 large cases, claiming $50,000 or more in the county. Since 2004, those filings have fallen to the mid-700s and stayed there.
"Previously seen as an overflow for Madison County cases, St. Clair was home to 21 asbestos cases in 2004, 36 in 2005, and 29 in 2006. Class actions also have been decreasing in the county, from 36 in 2005 to 11 in 2006."
Citing an Aug. 16 article in the Record, ATRA's report notes a "final correction on the past mistakes of St. Clair County and appellate judges" involving James Gibson who defrauded accident victims of $160 million in settlement funds.
"James Gibson, who owned a financing and structured settlement business, had used the county courts' favorable rulings to transfer funds, paid by defendants and intended for accident vicitims, into a personal account in Belize," the report states.
"The Fifth District Court covering St. Clair County had delivered an opinion that all settlement monies from accident victims could be transferred to Gibson and not deposited in trust accounts for the individual victims.
"With the funds under his complete control, Gibson distributed them as he saw fit. After stopping payments to victims and spending millions on himself, Gibson was eventually indicted on federal charges and convicted. The federal court cited the impropriety of the Fifth District ruling and actions in the description of the crime.
"By denying Gibson's appeal of his 40-year prison sentence, the federal court has now managed to apply some ice to another black eye for St. Clair courts.
"But the county is still a place to watch, as evidenced by the November 15, 2007 filing of a lawsuit against drugmaker Sanofi- Aventis. According to media reports, only four of the case's 47 plaintiffs reside in Illinois; the rest hail from 21 other states.
"And the suit includes an allegation relating to New Jersey law, which begs the question: Why should St. Clair jurors and taxpayers
expend time and resources deciding issues of New Jersey law for plaintiffs from across the country?"