Sixty-one asbestos defendants are asking Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison to revise the court's 2013 advance trial docket.
More than 100 attorneys packed a third floor courtroom on Monday morning as both sides of the bar argued their points in opposition to and support of a preliminary order established in December by former asbestos Judge Barbara Crowder.
Heyl Royster attorney Robert Shultz presented his proposal which would eliminate a reservation system for preferred plaintiff's firms, prioritize cases going to trial by the oldest ones with Illinois plaintiffs and establish the identity of cases 60 days in advance of trial.
"Cases with little or no connection to Illinois are drawn to Madison County," Shultz said. "Trial dates are marketed. Annually, defendants are forced to defend hundreds of suits brought by plaintiffs who live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.
As a result, Shultz said few local citizens bring cases, and few local industries remain.
According to Shultz's presentation, 158 people are diagnosed annually with mesothelioma in Illinois, but Madison County has 500 plus trial dates per year for those suffering from the disease.
Madison County has two percent of the population of Illinois, yet it shoulders nearly 25 percent of mesothelioma litigation in the nation, Shultz said.
His presentation drew a reaction from plaintiff attorneys in the courtroom, including Elizabeth Heller of Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland, P.C. and Barry Julian of Gori Julian in Edwardsville.
"Mr. Shultz is a very gifted attorney," Julian said. "Seventy six point three percent of all people who quote statistics make them up as they go along," he said.
Heller repeated remarks she made in the fall before Crowder.
"The sky is not falling. Cases without merit are getting dismissed or sent elsewhere," she said. "The system is working."
Attorney Eric Jackstadt of the Saville and Flint law firm told the court his firm requested three trial dockets but received two.
"The docketing system has a place in reality," Jackstadt said. "We asked for three dockets. We got two. It's never been a problem in the past for individual cases to be piggybacked."
"What the defense is arguing for will deny asbestos plaintiffs their significant rights."
Allyson Romani pleaded that Harrison set the cases for trial.
"These cases need to be set for trial," she said. "Extending trial dates will make it so clients may never see their trial dates. Getting rid of the current system will not make these cases go away. Consider the rights of every victim who brings their cases here."
Steven Aroesty of Napoli, Bern, Ripka, Shkolnik & Associates filed a motion to reconsider Crowder's order on March 7.
"Victims have finite lifespan," Aroesty said. "Clients need trial settings. They need to have access to trial dockets."
For the defense, Raymond R. Fournie of Armstrong Teasdale said asbestos litigation has resulted in an excess of 80 bankruptcies in Madison County
"The number of cases on the defense side has been difficult to deal with," Fournie said.
Shultz filed an 18-page brief March 12, opposing Crowder's order. His brief stated that the court's trial reservation system is no longer being used for its original purpose, to resolve local asbestos lawsuits.
The brief was also signed by Fournie, Daniel Donahue of Foley & Mansfield in St. Louis; and Steven Hart of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney of Chicago.
Crowder was reassigned to hear chancery, eminent domain and miscellaneous remedy cases on Dec. 12 after accepting $30,000 in campaign contributions from the area's three largest asbestos firms. She had granted those firms - Simmons of Alton and Goldenberg and Gori and Julian of Edwardsville - 82 percent of trial slots for 2013.
Harrison said he would continue to accept motions regarding the docket from attorneys
He said he could not pinpoint a time when he would reach a decision on Crowder's order.
"I have no idea," he said.
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