During the peak of its asbestos and class action filings, Madison County for three years straight was considered the No. 1 "Judicial Hellhole" in the nation.
But much has changed since 2004, the last year Madison County was at the top of the American Tort Reform Association's list of civil court systems it deems most unfair.
Reforms implemented by Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis and Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, who oversees the court's asbestos docket, helped ease criticism. And now for the second year straight, Madison County has stayed off the Hellhole list, though it remains on the ATRA's watch list.
"I think it's encouraging that there has been progress, particularly in Madison County," said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League.
"We hope that the movement continues in what we consider the right direction."
But, Murnane, who also serves as chairman of the American Tort Reform Association, said it was "disturbing" that asbestos cases in Madison County are increasing.
Asbestos filings peaked in Madison County in 2003 at 953 new cases, but then dropped dramatically in 2004 and 2005 as reform efforts addressed venue. But since 2006, Madison County's asbestos docket has been steadily climbing. This year's new filings already exceed the total number of asbestos cases filed in 2008.
Regarding class action lawsuits, at least one more case has been filed in 2009 than in 2008 in Madison County.
"Hopefully the judges can make the court system be viewed as fair and rigid and truly just, and not as a playground for special interest lawyers," Murnane said.
As for St. Clair County, which is noted less severely in the ATRA's report as "other areas to watch," the report states, "Madison County's neighbor shares a reputation as inhospitable to corporate defendants, but its standing has improved along with the rest of the Metro East in recent years. Still, it remains a place to watch with some decisions of concern."
Last week, the Record reported there have been three times as many class action lawsuits filed in St. Clair County in 2009 than there were filed in 2008.
Travis Akin, executive director of the Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), was critical of Madison and St. Clair counties' standing in the report.
"At a time when almost most businesses in the Metro-East are struggling, it appears that the lawsuit business is once again booming in St. Clair and Madison counties," he said.
"Unfortunately, the Metro-East's reemergence as a juicy target for personal injury lawyers could easily destroy the progress made over the past few years to bring common sense and fairness to the courts here."
Akin was particularly critical of a recently filed Madison County class action claim against O'Reilly Auto Parts.
Plaintiff Darin L. Pichee, represented by Bradley M. Lakin, Robert W. Schmieder II and Robert J. Evola of LakinChapman in Wood River, claims he purchased an ignition lock cylinder at an O'Reilly Auto Parts in Alton for $62.54 on Sept. 8. He returned the cylinder to the O'Reilly Godfrey store, but only received $61.96 back, or 58 cents less, because the applicable tax rate at the Godfrey store was lower.
"This ridiculous lawsuit belongs in the 'Class Action Hall of Shame,' not in a Madison County court," said Akin.
"Some of the usual suspects in the personal injury lawyer posse are behind this blatant and contrived scheme to rake in millions in fees over a whopping 58 cents. The motivation behind this frivolous lawsuit appears to be greed, not justice, and area business, their employees and their customers will end up paying the price."
In the ATRA's Hellhole report, Madison County was ranked No. 5 in 2005 and No. 6 in 2007.
Topping the Hellhole list this year is South Florida, followed by West Virginia, Cook County, Atlantic County, N.J. and beyond, New Mexico appellate courts and New York City