Madison County's asbestos docket discussed at national conference

By Bethany Krajelis | Oct 24, 2012

CHICAGO -- It didn’t take long for Madison County to come up at a national asbestos litigation conference last week in Chicago.

Attorneys spanning from California to New York attended HB Litigation Conferences' two-day event, which began Thursday with a “2012 Year in Review” session that opened with an in-depth update on Madison County.

“The biggest news that came out of Madison County this year” was Associate Judge Clarence Harrison’s decision to eliminate the advance setting of asbestos trial slots, said Brian Huelsmann, an Edwardsville defense attorney who spoke at the review session.

“Everybody was wondering if this would be a magical change to Madison County,” he said. “Well, realistically, nothing’s happened. We still have an increased number of filings.”

Huelsmann, who represents defendants in a variety of complex business litigation matters, told attendants that although the number of asbestos filings did drop a few years ago, records could be broken in 2012.

“Almost 800 asbestos cases were filed in Madison County this year,” he said, referring to figures as of Sept. 30.  “As such, we estimate there will be over 1,000 cases filed there at the current rate we are on. This will be an all-time high.”

While the majority of asbestos filings so far this year have come from “the same names, the same players we’ve seen for a long time,” he said a few “new players have come into Madison County” this year.

Huelsmann said the “same names” include the Simmons Law Firm in Alton and Edwardsville firms Gori Julian & Associates; and Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland.

“New players,” he said, come from Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, a national plaintiffs’ firm that recently opened up an Edwardsville office.

In addition, Huelsmann said that attorneys who have splintered off from the three main asbestos law firms and formed new firms in the past few years are providing some new competition to the “same names” this year as well.

The Simmons firm has filed 249 asbestos cases so far this year compared to the Napoli firm at 130, he said, adding that it appears the vast majority –117-- of Napoli’s asbestos cases focus on lung cancer, as opposed to mesothelioma.

On the other hand, Huelsmann said that 232 of the 249 asbestos cases the Simmons firm filed this year were mesothelioma-related while only 13 stem from lung cancer.

As for St. Clair County, Huelsmann told conference attendants that there was a spike in the number of filings there in 2010, but that it has dropped over the past two years to about 20 so far this year.

The circuit court there, he said, issued a favorable ruling to the plaintiff in an asbestos case that is now before the Illinois Supreme Court.

The high court in September heard arguments in Walter Fennell v. Illinois Central Railway Co., a case that spurred both the state plaintiffs and defense bar to file friend-of-the-court briefs. It is unknown when a ruling will be issued.

Although Madison County has historically been the jurisdiction to watch in Illinois when it comes to asbestos rulings, Huelsmann told attendants to pay attention to McLean County.

In 2009, a jury there awarded the plaintiff more than $2 million in her suit against several asbestos defendants (Rodarmel v. Pneumo-Abex, et al.). In 2010, a jury returned a verdict that awarded the plaintiff more than $17 million (Menssen v. Pneumo-Abex, et al.).

Panels of the Fourth District Appellate Court in both cases, however, reversed the McLean County Circuit Court.

Huelsmann said a McLean County jury last year awarded a plaintiff in an asbestos suit slightly more than $89 million, a verdict that the circuit court this summer reduced to less than $9 million after it granted some of the defendant companies’ motions for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (Gillenwater v. Honeywell, et al.).

“Keep your eyes on this jurisdiction,” he told attendants at the conference.

California defense attorney Michael Pietrykowski of Gordon & Rees said asbestos litigation in his state has been relatively quiet this year.

For instance, he said, mesothelioma cases in San Francisco, one of the California’s three main asbestos jurisdictions, have dropped from 84 in 2009 to about 21 so far this year.

Pietrykowski attributed the decrease to budget cuts that have increased filing fees and left the courts with fewer judges, as well a defense-friendly ruling from the California Supreme Court in January (O’Neill v. Crane Co.)

New York defense attorney Linda Clark of Hiscock & Barclay said courts in her state have relatively active asbestos dockets.

She said each of the 13 districts in New York has its own asbestos docket and that jury verdicts tend to vary in size depending on the jurisdiction.

Saying that the value of verdicts in Buffalo is not as much as in Manhattan, Clark compared upstate and downstate New York to Mars and Venus.

South Carolina plaintiffs’ attorney Christian Hartley said he has cases set this year in at least 15 jurisdictions, including Madison County.

Just this month, he settled his client’s asbestos suit with defendants Ford Motor Co. and John Crane Co. on what would have been the second day of trial.

Saying that he “enjoys not seeing so many cases in Madison County,” Hartley told attendants he can find it difficult to try a case in a so-called plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction.

He said he doesn’t mind having his cases moved to other jurisdictions, where “juries are not conditioned to the tort reform message that’s coming out” in some areas

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Gori, Julian & Associates PC Illinois Supreme Court

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