While last year’s spike in Madison County asbestos filings might not have surprised area attorneys, the reason behind the increase isn’t so easy to pinpoint.
If you ask Associate Judge Clarence Harrison, who presides over the asbestos docket, he’ll make the answer sound simple: “There are more filings because more people filed.”
Some attorneys, however, question whether Harrison’s decision to eliminate the practice of setting asbestos trials in advance might have opened up the door for more lawyers, and potentially more suits, to make their way into Madison County’s court system.
Others acknowledge that while the end of the advanced trial setting did provide an opportunity for smaller firms and new players to get more involved than in the past, it doesn’t necessarily have any connection to an increase in filings.
Figures from the Madison County Circuit Clerk show that 1,563 asbestos lawsuits were filed last year, an increase of more than 600 cases from 2011. With the exception of a slight dip in 2010, asbestos filings have been on a steady increase since 2006.
And a review of 2012 asbestos filings by The Record via eMagnus shows that dozens of these suits were filed by relatively new players in the Madison County asbestos game.
The majority of last year’s asbestos cases, however, were brought by several of the firms that have historically brought these suits, including nearly 500 by the Simmons Law Firm in Alton and about 340 by Gori Julian & Associates in Edwardsville.
Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland in Edwardsville, which typically ranked as one of the top three firms with the most asbestos filings, brought only 45 last year, according to records, while a relatively new player, Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, filling the No. 3 spot with 343 filings in 2012.
Headquartered in New York, the Napoli firm has 10 offices across the nation, including one that recently opened in Edwardsville.
Attorneys at the nationwide firm, Maune Raichle, brought about 120 asbestos suits last year, followed by the Texas law firm of Shrader & Associates at 78.
The Record’s analysis also shows that other small or relatively new players last year included Wood River attorney Bob Perica with about 70 filings; Flint & Associates with 30, the O’Brien Law Firm in St. Louis with 17 and SWMK Law in St. Louis with nine.
In addition, records show that Edwardsville attorney Michael Bilbrey brought four asbestos suits in Madison County in 2012, followed by Glen Carbon attorney Aaron Dickey with four and Chicago attorney Jon Richardson with one.
In regards to “new players,” Harrison said that is “a matter of perspective” and that there are always developments between firms, whether they are consolidating or splitting up.
Brian Huelsmann, a defense attorney with HeplerBroom in Edwardsville, said he noticed a few new players in the asbestos arena last year.
The reason for that, he said, is two-fold: attorneys splintering off from the area’s big asbestos firms to start their own practices and national firms hiring their own employees, instead of local counsel.
Editor's note: This article has been updated. In an earlier version, the article incorrectly stated that Gordon & Rees, a defense firm, had filed asbestos cases on behalf of plaintiffs. The Record regrets the error.
Huelsmann, however, said these trends don’t necessarily explain why Madison County saw a spike in filings last year.
Another trend he said he saw in 2012, but can’t necessarily explain, was an increase in the number of lung cancer-related asbestos suits.
During an asbestos conference in Chicago this fall, Huelsmann noted that the vast majority of Napoli’s asbestos cases as of August focused on lung cancer, as opposed to mesothelioma.
Raymond Fournie, a defense attorney at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis, said he also noticed a spike in lung cancer cases and said he believes Napoli is the third largest filer of asbestos suits and most of them are lung cancer cases.
Like Huelsmann, Fournie said he wasn’t surprised to learn Madison County broke previous asbestos filing records last year.
He said part of the reason behind the increase was Harrison’s order that eliminated the advanced trial setting for asbestos cases.
That, Fournie said, “made it more tenable for new players” to jump in and file suits since the court no longer reserved trial slots for certain firms. Now, he said, “it’s easier for people to simply come in and file for a docket setting” and “not have to affiliate themselves with local counsel.”
Lisa LaConte, an attorney at Heyl Royster in Edwardsville, said Harrison took a big step forward in getting rid of the advanced trial setting system, but that doing so “has certainly opened up an opportunity for other firms that may not have had the opportunity in the past, to get spaces on the trial docket.”
Saying that this new opportunity doesn’t fully explain the spike in filings, LaConte said last year’s record-breaking number of suits highlights the need to “take a look at those aspects of Madison County that make it an attractive forum and consider whether some additional revisions to trial settings need to be considered.”
Until there is a limitation on the number of cases set for trial, LaConte said “we are going to continue to see these high number of cases.”
“A meaningful application of forum law” could also help, LaConte said, noting that attorneys have yet to see the Illinois Supreme Court’s forum decision in Walter Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. play out.
“I think the impact of that is something we are going to see this year,” she said.
Fournie and Huelsmann also mentioned the importance of the Fennell decision, saying that depending on how courts apply it, the ruling could potentially help remove many of the out-of-state asbestos suits filed in Madison County.
“It’s hard to predict,” Fournie said.