Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a response to the "Judicial Hellholes" report from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.
Cook County’s courts have again landed a top billing among America’s worst “judicial hellholes,” sharing the designation with downstate Madison County on the annual list calling attention to some of the country’s most litigious local court systems.
On Dec. 5, the American Tort Reform Association ranked Cook and Madison counties a combined No. 7 on its list, which is also annually pilloried by trial lawyers in Illinois and elsewhere as a "publicity stunt" designed to continue to promote what the trial lawyers have called a “myth” of lawsuit abuse in courts in Chicago and elsewhere.
“Christmas comes but once a year for most of us, but for the personal injury lawyers who have turned the Cook County courthouse into their own personally profiable playground, it’s Christmas every day,” said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), a legal reform group focused on behavior in Illinois’ courts, reacting to the ATRA report.
“Our judges have allowed greedy personal injury lawyers to turn Cook County courts into their own personally profitable playground,” Akin said. “These personal injury lawyers spend millions on ubiquitous TV ads and billboards that encourage people to sue, resulting in a flood of frivolous lawsuits that clog Cook County courts and delay justice for people with legitimate claims.”
In a letter to the editor, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association responded to the ATRA report, calling it part of an "ongoing campaign to deny citizens access to the court system that their tax dollars fund."
"ATRA’s allies want to change Illinois law to shield corporations and insurance companies from accountability when their irresponsible behavior results in the serious injury or even death of innocent people," the letter, attributed to ITLA President John Scanlon, said. "To maximize its benefactors’ profits, ATRA also would shift the responsibility of paying to care for those sickened or injured away from the companies that caused the harm and onto the backs of taxpayers. "
In the ATRA report, Cook and Madison counties combined ranked behind the states of Florida, California and New Jersey; New York’s asbestos litigation courts; city courts in St. Louis and Philadelphia on ATRA’s list. The state of Louisiana rounded out ATRA’s list of top “Hellholes.”
While Madison County landed on the list once again largely on the basis of its national fame as a destination for asbestos-related personal injury claims, the Hellholes report blasted Cook County for its range of litigation of all kinds.
As in years past, the report noted Cook County hosted two-thirds of the state’s lawsuit activity, even though the county is home to a significantly smaller portion of the state’s population – and that number continues to decline.
“Judges consistently display a pro-plaintiff bias and a disregard for truth and fairness,” the report states. “The Cook County court has been plagued by unqualified and unethical judges, yet somehow most continue to be reelected.”
Two Cook County judges were removed from the bench this year for misconduct.
Judge Jessica O’Brien was indicted on federal mortgage fraud charges, and Judge Richard Cooke was forced to step down after he refused to work in traffic court and defied orders to do so for months.
On December 1, the Illinois Courts Commission forced another Cook County judge, Valarie Turner, into retirement after she revealed she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, after she had allowed a now-fired law clerk to hear cases in her courtroom, from her bench, while wearing her robe. That law clerk, Rhonda Crawford, had been a candidate for judge at the time, running unopposed as the Democratic Party nominee for a seat on the Cook County judiciary. While she won her election, the Illinois Supreme Court stepped in to prevent her from being sworn in as a judge.
The ATRA report also drew attention to Cook County’s notoriety as a destination for “meritless lawsuits filed there each year as personal injury lawyers scramble for the next ‘golden ticket,’” the report states.
“These lawyers spend millions of dollars on advertising that encourages Illinoisans to sue over anything and everything, clogging the county courthouse with litigation that invariably delays justice for those with legitimate claims.
“These very same lawyers then contribute millions to Cook County judges’ election campaigns, hoping to cultivate a plaintiff-friendly bench,” the report continues.
The report particularly called out a rash of lawsuits filed against retailers in the wake of Cook County’s decision to slap a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda pop and other sweetened beverages, as plaintiffs lawyers moved quickly to drag into court a host of beverage sellers, from McDonald’s, Subway and Walgreens to 7-Eleven and even the Art Institute of Chicago, for improperly collecting the tax.
“As should be expected any time a new tax is added, it created some confusion for merchants and customers alike,” ATRA said in its report. “But rather than allow a reasonable grace period for glitches to be fixed, trial lawyers struck quickly.”
And ATRA drew attention to an ever-growing slew of lawsuits brought against employers of all sizes under a state privacy law, in which the employers are accused of technical violations of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, for scanning employee fingerprints for use in recording employee work hours, but allegedly doing so without first collecting written permission from the employees to scan their biometric identifiers.
The list of those companies sued under the law includes prominent Illinois companies, like United Airlines, American Airlines, Aramark, Hyatt, Hooters and many others, including a host of janitorial service providers and health care and elder care organizations.
“It is unlikely that any of these recently filed cases will ever make it to trial,” ATRA wrote. “And it is even more unlikely that, if any did, evidence of real harm to any class members would be adduced. Because, with a big assist from the Illinois lawmakers whose reelection campaigns they generously support, the class-action lawyers driving these suits are much more interested in pre-trial settlements.”
In disputing the basis for the report, ITLA's Scanlon said data from the state's courthouses indicate the state has actually grown less litigious in recent years.
"The number of civil cases filed in Illinois dropped 43 percent between 2010 and 2015. The number of medical malpractice cases has decreased 32 percent since 2003. More than 60 percent of the cases in our courts today involve businesses suing other businesses or individuals," Scanlon said.
"Illinois’ courts are fair and provide an avenue for people of ordinary means who are victims of wrongdoing to hold perpetrators accountable. They serve as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct and that’s precisely why ATRA is so determined to shut down the ability of individuals to access them for help.
"ATRA and its supporters feign concern about “frivolous lawsuits” but what they truly fear are meritorious lawsuits that force them to return ill-gotten gains to the people they have hurt."
At I-LAW, Akin called on voters to hold judges accountable at election time, taking stock of those who accept campaign donations from the same trial lawyers who file these lawsuits in their courts.
“Judges can create jobs by stopping lawsuit abuse in their courts,” Akin said. “… We need judges who will not allow Cook County to remain a ‘judicial hellhole.’"
- Heather Isringhausen Gvillo contributed to this report.