After two years off the official list, Cook County has again landed a top spot – albeit, in combination with two other downstate Illinois counties - on an annual list recognizing some of the most litigious locales in the U.S., the world’s most lawsuit-happy country.
On Dec. 15, the American Tort Reform Association ranked Cook County, together with Madison and St. Clair counties, at No. 6 in its top U.S. “Judicial Hellholes.”
“Whether it is medical malpractice, product liability or disability access lawsuits, Chicago is the wrong place to defend a case,” ATRA wrote in its report.
The trio of lllinois counties ranked behind St. Louis, Mo.; the state of California; New York’s asbestos litigation courts; South Florida and the Florida Supreme Court; and the state of New Jersey on the “Hellholes” list. The state of Louisiana; Newport News, Va.; and Hidalgo County, Texas, rounded out ATRA’s list of top “Hellholes.”
Cook County had been a fixture on the list in years past, but had escaped prominent mention in the most recent two editions, which had instead taken aim at Madison County and its so-called asbestos “rocket docket” and judicial election “end-runs.”
However, this year, Cook County again returned to the spotlight, as ATRA called out the Cook County Circuit Court and the Chicago federal courts as prime spots for litigation of all kinds.
The report noted Cook County hosted two-thirds of the state’s lawsuit activity, even though the county is home to just 40 percent of Illinois’ population.
“Observers consistently tell ATRA that the scales of civil justice have been out of balance there for decades, and no one is holding their breath while waiting for those scales to be leveled,” the ATRA report said.
While Madison County continues to far outpace Cook County for asbestos-related lawsuits, Cook County again placed seventh nationally for the total number of asbestos lawsuits filed in 2015.
But the report particularly called out Chicago’s courts for the range and breadth of other litigation filed, including climbing payouts for medical malpractice. Citing data from Deiderich Healthcare, ATRA said Illinois courts ordered $258 million in medical litigation payouts in 2015, an increase of $49.7 million from 2014 – even as the total number of medical malpractice cases declined.
The “Hellholes” report also called attention to “a spike in drive-by lawsuits,” filed nominally on behalf of clients with disabilities, that seek quick payouts and settlements from small businesses and others afraid of the costs of lawsuits which accused them of “technical violations of disability access requirements.”
Further, ATRA criticized the connections between new Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and plaintiffs’ trial law firms, including the firm of Power, Rogers & Smith, with whom Foxx had performed work in the past.
And the report called out Cook County’s judicial “embarrassments,” including the 2014 forcible removal of Cook County Judge Cynthia Brim, who was declared “legally insane” by a court in 2012, yet was reelected and the ongoing saga surrounding fired law clerk Rhonda Crawford, who was elected to the Cook County bench despite having been accused by state regulators of impersonating a judge while hearing at least three cases, months before the actual election. The Illinois Supreme Court has acted to suspend Crawford’s law license and bar her taking the judicial oath, despite winning election in November.
The report, however, applauded the move by Cook County Judge Daniel J. Lynch to vacate a $25 million personal injury settlement reached moments before a jury delivered a verdict in the case in favor of defendants, when the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mark McNabola, allegedly was tipped off to jury discussions by a court clerk who purportedly “likes to give an advantage to plaintiffs.” Lynch learned of the alleged misconduct from a courthouse intern who purportedly overheard the clerk’s conversation with McNabola.
“If only more judges behaved so admirably,” ATRA said of Lynch.
Downstate, the report noted Madison and St. Clair counties, in the St. Louis Metro area, remain areas of concern, as well.
The report noted Madison County remains the country’s “Asbestos Litigation Capital,” as asbestos litigation accounted for 72 percent of the civil cases filed in the county in 2015 – most with no connection to the county or even to Illinois, the report said.
“Just six of the claims were filed on behalf of Madison County residents, comprising a mere 0.5 percent of the court’s asbestos docket,” ATRA said. “The rest were litigation tourists from around the country, seeking an advantage over defendants in this plaintiff-friendly court.”
The report highlighted “close ties” between trial lawyers and the judges in the county.
In neighboring St. Clair County, the report highlighted that county’s continued growth in asbestos filings.
And ATRA drew attention to recent maneuvers by three judges to skirt constitutional requirements to face retention votes – which require securing 60 percent of the vote to remain in office – and instead resign, allowing them to run as if they were first-time judicial candidates, eligible to win the race with a simple majority of the vote. Two of the three judges managed to win new terms on the bench.
Elsewhere in the state this year, downstate McLean County, for which Bloomington serves as the county seat, received a mention on ATRA’s “Hellholes” Watch List.
“Bloomington has a history of lopsided rulings and resultantly questionable verdicts for asbestos plaintiffs that are frequently reversed on appeal,” the report said.
As in years past, ATRA’s report came under fire from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, which derided the report as “Fake News.”
ITLA noted litigation activity has been declining in Illinois and nationally. It noted, particularly, that medical malpractice cases “have been on a steady decline over the past decade, down 39 percent since 2003” and asbestos lawsuits in Madison County have dropped 27 percent since 2013.
“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,” ITLA said in its statement responding to the “Hellholes” report. “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.”