For the second consecutive year, Cook County was not listed on the American Tort Reform Association’s annual count of the country’s worst “Judicial Hellholes."
However, downstate Madison County, thanks in large part to what the group calls an asbestos “rocket docket,” was again subjected to a torching this year, as ATRA released its annual report on U.S. legal jurisdictions it believes are most in need of reform.
In the report, which is annually scorched upon its release by trial lawyers groups which say the document distorts the reality of the situation, the civil justice reform group defines a judicial hellhole as “a place where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner.”
Courts in California topped the list with the New York City asbestos litigation court (NYCAL), Florida, Missouri and Madison County trailing behind in what ATRA perceives as the top five most unfair courts in the country in how civil litigation is handled. Three of the top five judicial hellholes are entire states, while Madison County and New York earned their places on the list based entirely on one jurisdiction.
Rounding out the Top 9 were the state of Louisiana; Hidalgo County, Texas; Newport News, Va.; and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
“With both this annual report and a year-round website, our Judicial Hellholes program since 2002 has been documenting troubling developments in jurisdictions where civil court judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally to the disadvantage of defendants,” stated Tiger Joyce, ATRA president.
Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), reacted to the report, saying that the litigation climate in Madison County is hurting job creation.
“For far too long, Madison County has 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 Madison County, all in the hopes of striking it rich playing our region’s plaintiff-friendly lawsuit lottery," Akin stated.
"Greedy personal injury lawyers have turned the ‘Land of the Lincoln’ into the ‘Land of Lawsuits,’ and that is hurting job creation efforts in the Metro-East and throughout Illinois."
The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) discounted the report. The group called the report an “unwelcome, holiday-time tradition of stoking prejudice and fear about our civil justice system.”
“ATRA works to undermine the independence of our courts to help corporate interest avoid responsibility for their dangerous behavior and reckless actions," ITLA reacted in a statement.
“The real ‘judicial hellhole’ that ATRA is trying to create – and that we must demand our elected officials vigorously oppose – is a court system in which regular men and women have little chance for justice because their rights have been stripped away by politicians doing the bidding of corporate special interests."
Madison County’s ranking stayed the same as last year's.
Much of the report's criticism focused on the high volume of asbestos cases filed in Madison County, amounting to roughly a third of all asbestos lawsuits in the nation despite its recent drop in case filings.
The vast majority of cases filed in Madison County, the nation’s busiest asbestos docket, have no connection to Illinois. In fact, roughly 10 percent of the asbestos cases are filed by an Illinois resident and only about 1 percent are filed by Madison County residents.
ITLA, on the other hand, argues that the number of asbestos lawsuits has declined by 22 percent since 2013 – when Madison County saw a record-breaking year of 1,678 asbestos cases filed.
“The misinformation spread by ATRA’s feeble ‘report’ is part of a broader and very well financed nationwide campaign to prevent injured or sickened individuals from getting a fair shake in our courts," ITLA's statement reads. "Powerful and wealthy special interests that fear they will be held accountable for their wrongdoing want to severely limit the opportunities for judges and juries to decide cases. Throwing around the disparaging term ‘judicial hellhole’ is meant to further prejudice the public and prospective jurors against plaintiffs who have suffered horrible injuries and terrible mistreatment."
ATRA's Hellhole report also takes issue with the hundreds of asbestos cases set for trial in a single asbestos docket, which pressures defense attorneys into settlements because they are unable to properly prepare for every case.
“Like a crack NFL offense sending too many receivers for defenders to cover into a particular part of the field, plaintiffs’ lawyers’ employ a comparable ‘flooding the zone’ technique with their asbestos cases in Madison County,” the report states.
Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs, who presides over the Madison County asbestos docket, has been praised in the past by defense attorneys for making efforts to clean up the docket by implementing a priority system, which requires plaintiffs’ attorneys to select their top five cases most likely to go to trial each week. This allows defendants to focus on five possible trial cases rather than 20 or more.
However, in recent weeks, hundreds of asbestos cases have been set for trial on the same day.
“Of course, being the nation’s epicenter for asbestos litigation is but a symptom of Madison County’s more serious disease – a culture of bias wherein local judges and plaintiffs’ lawyers seem to agree that it’s perfectly okay to stack the deck against and fleece out-of-state defendants, even if that may sometimes require willful end runs around judicial election law and the will of voters,” the report states.
Madison County also is criticized for its judicial appointments and elections as asbestos lawyers continue to financially support their favorite candidates with campaign contributions.
The report adds that asbestos lawyers ask circuit judges to return the favor by appointing their colleagues as associate judges. The report highlighted Associate Judge Jennifer Hightower’s recent judicial appointment at 32 years of age.
Madison County also is criticized for the resurrection of the infamous Price v. Phillip Morris tobacco case, a $10.1 billion judgment entered by a judge, not jury, in 2003. In spite of being overturned at the state supreme court in 2005, lower courts have allowed proceedings to go forward with new arguments.
“With a vampire’s determination to avoid the light, plaintiffs’ counsel has tried repeatedly for more than a decade to revive a monstrous initial judgment of $10.1 billion, leading to a uniquely disturbing procedural history,” the report states.
The class action was filed in Madison County in 2001 seeking damages on behalf of all Illinois residents who had purchased “light” cigarettes since 1971. Former Judge Nicholas Byron presided over a three-month bench trial, delivering the $10.1 billion award.
“So while the plaintiffs’ attorneys driving this case may or may not see their reflections in a mirror, they’ll most certainly be seen back before the state high court, trying to convince the justices that, even though they lost fair and square under existing law long ago, they should now be granted a win and allowed to take a nearly $2 billion contingency-fee bite out of the original other-worldly damages award,” the suit states.
After more than a decade on ATRA’s Judicial Hellholes list, Cook County was left off the list entirely for the first time in 2014. This year, the county again was not placed in the Top 9 or on ATRA’s watch lists.