Long before the recent explosion of “fake news,” the American Tort Reform Association, an organization that uses the appealing word “reform” in its name to hide its true purpose, was busy hawking disinformation to confuse public understanding and promote rage toward our state’s judicial system.
This year’s version of the inflammatorily titled “Judicial Hellholes” report – an annual holiday season “gift” from the organization that nobody asked for or wants – is part of its ongoing campaign to deny Illinoisans access to the court system that their tax dollars fund. A “who’s who” of corporate giants that have been repeatedly found negligent by judges and juries, or that have been sanctioned by the government and safety groups because of their dangerous conduct, finance this annual PR stunt. The executives and shareholders of these negligent businesses have the most to gain by shutting the courthouse doors – and regular citizens the most to lose.
ATRA wants to change Illinois law to shield corporations and insurance companies from accountability when their reckless behavior results in the serious injury or even death of innocent people. To maximize its benefactors’ profits, ATRA would also shift the responsibility of paying to care for those sickened or injured away from the companies that caused it and onto the backs of taxpayers.
This report has been debunked and widely ridiculed time and time again. It is devoid of genuine research or sound methodology and does nothing more than express ATRA’s predetermined conclusion.
The truth is that the number of lawsuits filed has been dropping nationwide, and here in Illinois civil case filings dropped 33 percent between 2010 and 2014. Medical malpractice cases have been on a steady decline over the past decade, down 39 percent since 2003. That drop is due in no small measure to the work of trial lawyers whose legal efforts have forced doctors and hospitals to practice safer medicine. In addition, the number of asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County – a favorite target of ATRA – has declined 27 percent since 2013.
Illinois’ courts are fair and provide an avenue for victims of wrongdoing to hold perpetrators accountable. Our legal system serves as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct and that’s precisely why ATRA is so determined to shut down the ability of individuals who have been hurt to appeal to the courts for help. ATRA and its supporters do not fear “frivolous lawsuits” because they know our justice system screens out the very few suits that are without merit long before they get to trial. What they fear are meritorious lawsuits that will force them to return ill-gotten gains to the people they have harmed.
ATRA’s holiday publicity stunt is no more welcome than is a lump of coal in the stocking. It demeans the U.S. Constitution and attacks citizens’ Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury. The real “judicial hellhole” that this group and its deep-pocketed funders are trying to create is a court system in which those who have suffered serious or catastrophic injuries have little chance for justice because their rights have been stripped away by politicians eager to please their campaign donors. That is truly un-American and a terrible idea to contemplate in what should be a season of peace and good will towards all.
Christopher T. Hurley is president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.