WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Madison County may have moved off the American Tort Reform Foundation's annual list of judicial hellholes, but it -- and surrounding areas -- are still being watched.
Madison County was put on the ATRF's watch list for a second straight year when the report was released Tuesday and was joined by the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. St. Clair County was mentioned in the "Others to Watch" section of the report.
The ATRF named Madison County as the No. 1 judicial hellhole from 2002-04 before dropping to No. 5 in 2005 and No. 6 in 2007.
The re-election of Chief Judge Ann Callis has the ATRF optimistic that Madison County will continue to improve.
"Judge Callis banned multiple substitutions of judges by class action plaintiffs -- a decision upheld in 2008 by the Fifth District Appellate Court," the report says. "Illinois law provides plaintiffs with one substitution for cause as a matter of right if the judge has not made a significant ruling in the case."
ATRF's report says local class action lawyers would file for substitutions on behalf of class members in order to get the judge they considered most favorable.
"Judge Callis eliminated this procedural loophole, giving shameless plaintiffs attorneys one less reason to select Madison County as a place to expect plaintiff-biased treatment," the report says.
Cook County was ranked third on the Hellholes list.
Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said that the state's "seemingly permanent position at the top of the Hellholes report is not something to celebrate."
But he did credit the efforts of Judge Callis in improving Madison County's reputation.
"To be sure, Madison County's legal system has made significant progress in recent years, thanks to reforms enacted by local Chief Judge Ann Callis," Murnane said. "Neighboring St. Clair County, however, still remains a problem."
"For the good of our state's employers, consumers and working families, our state legislators need to enact meaningful lawsuit reforms – and they need to do it next year," he said.
The ATRF also says Madison County Judge Richard Tognarelli's decertification of two massive classes will help keep class action lawyers away. One case included plaintiffs from 49 states and another had plaintiffs from 46 states.
It also cites a mandatory arbitration program for all lawsuits seeking between $10,000-$50,000 as a reason for optimism.
One area of concern, the report adds, is an increase in asbestos filings from out-of-state plaintiffs. Some suits name as many as 250 defendants, and an average of 6-8 lawsuits have been filed per week over the last two years.
"Although what once was a raging flood of asbestos cases has been reduced to a steady stream, there is fear among some observers that dangerous waters could rise again," the report says. "In one week in March 2008, 20 new asbestos cases were filed in Madison County, the most in a five- day period in more than two years.
"Sixteen of the 20 cases involved plaintiffs from outside Illinois. Overall, the number of asbestos cases filed in the county rose significantly in 2007 and again in 2008 with about nine out of 10 claims filed on behalf of out-of-state plaintiffs."
Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), said the report may not have listed them as Hellholles but there is room for improvement in St. Clair and Madison Counties.
"Certainly, the situation in Madison County is not as bad as it once was, but the fact the number of asbestos cases is growing and the fact that the majority of these cases are out-of-state claims is something Illinois residents need to watch very closely," Akin said.
The ATRF sees progress in the Madison County's asbestos docket, especially with the retirement of Judge Nicholas Byron. The report says his plaintiff-biased rulings "invited a cross-continent parade of asbestos plaintiffs and established the county as the very worst of judicial hellholes for years."
Just across the border in Missouri, things are getting worse, the report says. Two verdicts in St. Louis County broke the county's record for highest personal injury award, with the top spot belonging to May's $25 million verdict in a car accident case.
Class action lawyers and out-of-state plaintiffs are also hitting the area, the report says. Three of the four class action lawsuits over the cholesterol pill Vytorin were filed in St. Louis area courts.
In St. Clair County, another former hellhole, the ATRF is concerned that a lawsuit against Eli Lilly & Company over its prescription anti-psychotic Zyprexa was filed there. Only one of the 36 plaintiffs lived in St. Clair County, and the same attorneys filed a 30-plaintiff suit in Nov. 2007.
"Why would presumably infirm patients bring their claims across the country to St. Clair County? Maybe because the county still has a lingering hellhole reputation, and maybe because the attorneys, Lloyd and Christopher Cueto happen to be, respectively, the son and brother of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd A. Cueto?" the report says.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.