Local lawmakers are standing with tort reform group Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW) to revive discussion of a sticking point in a two month old state budget impasse.
Madison County board members Tom McRae (R-14) and Mick Madison (R-5) joined I-LAW's executive director Travis Akin on Tuesday to support passage of venue reform, a key component of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's Turnaround Agenda.
Democratic lawmakers have balked at Rauner's proposals, and now the state is two months into its fiscal year with the only significant portion of its budget approved being that for primary and secondary education.
Akin said he would like to see Madison and St. Clair counties shed their reputations as lawsuit "magnets," by way of venue reform.
He said one of the "common sense" reforms being proposed by Rauner would stop lawyers from filing lawsuits in the local courts that have nothing to do with Illinois. He said the practice of "venue shopping" is all too common in Illinois in "plaintiff friendly" courts such as in the Metro East.
Rauner's venue reform proposal would impact Madison County's asbestos docket, where more than 90 percent of the claimants filing asbestos suits are from outside Illinois, and less than 2 percent of the claims filed are on behalf of Madison County residents. It is also the nation's busiest asbestos docket.
As of June 30, there had been 588 asbestos suits filed in Madison County. In 2012, there were 1,563; in 2013, there were 1,678 and last year there were 1,300.
“It’s just common sense to require lawsuits filed in Illinois to have an actual connection to Illinois, and yet in Madison County, 98 percent of the asbestos lawsuits filed there are for plaintiffs who do not live in that county, which is an absurd misuse of our courts and our tax dollars," Akin stated in a press release.
He also equated "abusive lawsuits" to the problem of jobs leaving the Metro-East.
Akin said that the Metro East region lost 1,800 jobs in the last year, according to figures from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
“The people of Madison and St. Clair Counties are tired of seeing jobs and opportunities leave Illinois,” Akin stated. “They understand that if we are going to bring more jobs to Illinois, we need to put an end to abusive lawsuits."
He cited a study conducted by I-LAW and the Illinois Civil Justice League, Litigation Imbalance III, which highlights the disparity of case filings and verdict totals in Cook, Madison, St. Clair counties and three other downstate counties compared to the state’s other 96 counties.
Akin said that according to the study, case filings in Madison County average 8.255 per thousand persons, which is double the rate of Cook County; triple the rate of St. Clair County; and six and a half times the rate of the other 99 counties in Illinois combined.
Madison, who owns a business that deals in sales of large equipment that moves freight cars, said many business owners in Madison County have concerns over getting sued.
"One lawsuit could be the end of you," he said.
He further stated that businesses can adjust to regulations and higher taxes, but that lawsuits are "the great unknown because the cost of a lawsuit could be fairly manageable or it could be large enough to put a small business out of business."
"I know firsthand as a business owner myself – the threat of a lawsuit is ever present here in Madison County," he stated.
McRae spoke out against the high cost of litigation against the County that besets taxpayers.
Akin's press release stated that the Madison County Auditor’s Comprehensive Financial Report for fiscal year 2014 showed that Madison County spent about $1.2 million on litigation claims, a figure "on par" for how much the county typically spends every year on litigation.
“We are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on lawsuits,” McRae stated in the release.
“Millions of dollars are being sucked out of already-squeezed budgets, leading to fewer teachers, unrepaired roads, fewer police officers and higher taxes for area residents. I sit in board meeting after board meeting at the County Board and we are always having to approve money for one lawsuit after another. That is unacceptable. We need Governor Bruce Rauner’s lawsuit reforms and we need it now.”
Other key components of Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda are:
- A property tax freeze coupled with greater local control over collective bargaining, and elimination of the prevailing wage act for local government projects;
- Reform of the workers compensation system, most notably in terms of causation, or what makes an injury a workers’ comp-eligible injury; and
- Ballot questions on two constitutional questions: Term limits for elected state officials and establishment of an independent legislative redistricting commission.