Maintaining a yearly spot on the American Tort Reform Association’s Judicial Hellholes list, Cook, Madison and St. Clair Counties were combined this year to make up the sixth Judicial Hellhole in the nation.
“For far too long, Madison and St. Clair Counties have been a magnet for personal injury lawyers and plaintiffs from all over the country who clog our courts with junk lawsuits that have nothing to do with the Metro-East, all in the hopes of striking it rich playing our region’s plaintiff-friendly lawsuit lottery.” “Greedy personal injury lawyers have turned the ‘Land of Lincoln’ into the ‘Land of Lawsuits,’ and that is hurting job creation efforts in the Metro-East and throughout Illinois,” stated Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW).
St. Louis is ranked as the worst Judicial Hellhole. It is followed by courts in California; the New York City Asbestos Litigation; Florida Supreme Court and South Florida; courts in New Jersey; Cook, Madison and St. Clair Counties in Illinois; courts in Louisiana; Newport News, Va.; and Hidalgo County, Texas.
“Christmas comes but once a year for most of us, but for the personal injury lawyers who have turned the Madison and St. Clair County courthouse into their own personally profitable playground, it’s Christmas every day,” Akin stated.
According to the report, Cook County hosts roughly two-thirds of the state’s major civil litigation while only 40 percent of Illinoisans live within the county.
ATRA notes that the county’s medical malpractice litigation data shows that Illinois led its Midwest neighbors with $258 million medical liability payouts in 2015, which was up $49.7 million from its 2014 total payouts.
In June, Cook County saw its largest medical liability verdict in history when a jury entered a $53 million verdict against the University of Chicago Medical Center in a suit involving a child’s cerebral palsy.
Chicago also is seeing a spike in “drive-by lawsuits,” which often involve claims alleging technical violations of disability access requirements. These suits are typically brought against small business that opt to settle the claims rather than pay the money it would take to fight the suit.
ATRA also took issue with Cook County’s judges.
“The latest major embarrassment came this past Election Day when county voters elected Rhonda Crawford to the bench,” the report states. “Crawford is under indictment for posing as a judge and presiding over traffic cases while she was employed as a law clerk. Her license to practice law has been suspended. Yet Crawford still defeated a sitting judge who launched a write-in campaign. While Crawford was the certified winner of the election, the state supreme court has barred her from taking the bench.”
The report states that expert witnesses allowed to testify in Cook County are worse than its judicial selection.
“Judges perform little to no gatekeeping, and juries are often intentionally missed by litigants,” the report states.
However, ATRA praised Cook County Judge Daniel Lynch’s decision to throw out a $25 million personal injury settlement this year after a courthouse intern reported that she’d overheard a law clerk tipping off a plaintiff’s lawyer about the contents of a jury note, which suggested jurors were poised to come back with a defense verdict.
The intern then heard a clerk for the judge presiding over the case tell one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers about what the note said, but waited 27 minutes before informing the defense counsel about the note. By that time, the settlement had been reached between the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the defendant’s insurer.
Shortly after, the jury did return a defense verdict, but the judge found it moot in light of the settlement.
The intern also reportedly told Lynch that the clerk told her that she likes to give an advantage to plaintiffs.
In Madison County, its popular asbestos docket secured its position as a Judicial Hellholes once again.
Asbestos lawsuits accounted for 72 percent of the civil cases filed in Madison County’s courthouse in 2015, with Madison County residents comprising of less than 1 percent of the plaintiffs.
Illinois residents filed roughly 75 of Madison County’s 1,224 asbestos cases in 2015 with just six cases filed on behalf of claimants residing locally in Madison County.
At mid-year, asbestos filings this year were up 10 percent when compared to last year.
“It’s just common sense to require lawsuits filed in Illinois to have an actual connection to Illinois, and yet in Madison County, 99 percent of the asbestos lawsuits filed there are for plaintiffs who do not live in that county,” Akin stated in response. “That is an absurd misuse of our courts and our tax dollars, and it victimizes all of us.”
Madison County judges’ close ties with the plaintiffs’ bar also played a role in the county’s Hellholes ranking.
Specifically, Associate Judge Donald Flack, a former plaintiffs’ asbestos attorney, disclosed relationships with two national asbestos law firms that had developed after he became a judge. And at least 30 cases he filed are active today.
However, ATRA praised Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs’ recent revised case management order governing the Madison County asbestos docket.
“It is the first significant change in more than five years,” the report states.
The revised order limits the number of cases set for trial each year to 780 cases and requires plaintiffs to show proof of an asbestos-related injury before a case can be set for trial.
“These are welcome changes that could increase fairness in asbestos litigation and reduce the incentive for plaintiffs’ lawyers from across the country to pile into Madison County.”
St. Clair County
Calling St. Clair County “Madison’s troublesome neighbor,” the report notes that St. Clair County was the nation’s fastest-growing asbestos jurisdiction between 2014 and 2015.
St. Clair County also earned its place as a Judicial Hellhole after Chief Judge John Baricevic and Circuit Judges Robert Haida and Robert LeChien sought election rather than retention. LeChien, whose judicial ability has been challenged in several recent substitution requests, “squeaked” by with a 51 percent win, which earned him the seat but would not have won a bid for retention.
Haida ran unopposed and won his seat, but Baricevic lost to Republican Ron Duebbert.
“Chief Judge Baricevic wanted to change the rules mid-game for his own personal benefit, but like a football referee who blows the whistle on a penalty in a game, voters blew the whistle on this judge for unsportsmanlike judicial conduct and for transparently trying to game the system to his advantage. Voters made a statement on Election Day,” Akin stated. “They are tired of personal injury lawyers and judges gaming the system. They want reform.”
Citing a report by the Illinois Civil Justice League, which questioned if Illinois justice is for sale, the report said wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys “wield incredible political power” in Illinois. The ICJL report found:
- While the Illinois Trial Lawyers Assocation claims more than 2,000 members in Illinois, its PAC received all of its major contributions from attorneys and firms in the Cook, Madison and St. Clair County areas
- Plaintiffs’ lawyers donated $35.25 million to state politicians over the past 15 years. The top personal injury firms gave more than $7 million to Illinois judicial candidates alone.
- Judicial race spending in Cook, Madison and St. Clair Counties was “significantly higher” than other areas of the state. “Plaintiff-lawyer contributions to county officials’ campaigns also were heaviest in these three counties.”
“It is shenanigans like this that have cemented Madison County’s reputation as a haven for personal injury lawyers and a hell for local businesses who are frequently the targets of these junk lawsuits,” Akin stated. “The Metro-East’s lawsuit abuse epidemic is making it extremely hard to attract new employers and the badly-needed jobs they would bring. We need Governor Rauner’s common sense lawsuit reforms now more than ever.”
The Judicial Hellholes report also states that Gov. Bruce Rauner offers a chance for change as he has “consistently advocated civil justice reforms, including limits on forum shopping, strengthening the reliability of expert testimony, reducing the opportunity for fraud and double-dipping in asbestos litigation, and providing jurors with more information to ensure that damage awards accurately reflect a plaintiff’s medical expenses.”
McLean County, Ill., was included on the Judicial Hellholes watch list this year, which stated that the Bloomington jurisdiction “developed a reputation for lopsided rulings that favor plaintiffs in asbestos cases …”
“McLean County verdicts ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars are often reversed by the Fourth District Court of Appeals,” the report states. “The appellate court has tossed out multiple McLean asbestos verdicts that sensationally assert conspiracies with no evidentiary support.”
McLean County’s asbestos docket is growing, but has not yet reached the nation’s top 15 asbestos magnet jurisdictions. However, it is still recognized for its jury verdicts.