By: Corey Davenport
ALTON - What is a judicial hellhole?
According to Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), a judicial hellhole is a place without lawsuit reforms, which allows personal injury lawyers to have the entire run of a judicial system, allowing what it perceives to be unfair settlements and practices for defendants in these cases. Madison, St. Clair and Cook counties in Illinois are some of the most cited offenders in the country qualifying to have the badge of "judicial hellhole." I-LAW has set upon a statewide summer campaign - with a focus on cities bordering other states - to illustrate the sort of judicial reforms Illinois may require.
Part of the reason I-LAW is hosting rallies at Illinois cities bordering other states, such as East St. Louis, Quincy and the Quad Cities area is to illustrate how Illinois's neighbors have done lawsuit reforms, which I-LAW said has attracted more expansive business growth to their states. Most recently, the Missouri legislature passed a law requiring a more detailed definition of "expert witness," and attempted to pass venue reform laws as well, but I-LAW Executive Director Travis Akin said those measures were stalled in the Missouri House at this time.
"We had a rally this (Thursday) morning in East St. Louis at the Malcolm Martin Memorial Park," Akin said. "We chose it, because it had a great view of St. Louis. St. Louis was listed as the top judicial hellhole in the country by the American Tort Reform Foundation last year, and unlike Illinois, the Missouri legislature is doing something about it. The 'Show-Me State' is showing the way to lawsuit reform."
I-LAW describes itself as a grassroots, non-partisan legal watchdog group with the goal of destroying what it perceives as the Metro East's "safe haven" for "aggressive personal injury lawyers," and "job-killing frivolous lawsuits they bring."
While I-LAW may describe itself as "bi-partisan," the cause of lawsuit reform is mostly hoisted by Republicans. In fact, in a release from I-LAW regarding this summer's campaign for lawsuit reform, I-LAW cites Illinois Democrats, including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton for not introducing lawsuit reforms, such as venue reform and expert witness definitions to the Illinois General Assembly for a vote.
"It's a tale of two states," Akin said in a release. "Missouri has responded to a growing lawsuit abuse epidemic there by moving swiftly this year to enact meaningful lawsuit reforms that will stop personal injury lawyers from filing junk lawsuits against employers. The 'Show-Me State' is showing the way."
Akin admitted both Democrats and Republicans can equally become defendants in these personal injury cases, but added personal injury lawyers often fund Democrat candidates, who then preside over the system and allow for large settlements to be given to plantiffs without what Akin believes to be a proper procedure.
Because of the current system in Madison County, the release from I-LAW states as many as 99 percent of the asbestos cases heard in the Madison County courts system originate from elsewhere.
"As much as 60 percent of the asbestos dockets from across the entire country are filed in Madison County," I-LAW Treasurer Bruce Wallace said. "Why Madison County has that notoriety is because there is no legislation to prevent venue change. If you're in Virginia, and you have mesothelioma, why would you not want your case heard in Madison County?"
Wallace said the ubiquitous television advertisements for personal injury cases are shown across the country, but are often settled in Madison County, Illinois. That includes more than simply asbestos as well. Other notable personal injury cases, including talcum powder being linked to feminine cancers, are also included in I-LAW's quest for lawsuit reform.
When asked if they were against people having the ability to sue companies during valid instances of ignorance or neglect, Akin said "everybody should have the right to be made whole."
"Absolutely, people need to be made whole if they have a legitimate case," Akin said. "One of the problems we have in Illinois is you can file a lawsuit, but you don't have to disclose if you have a case against a trust fund as well. There is no way in Illinois law to require disclosure of that info. People are double-dipping. Why should current companies have to pay a claim, when they also have a claim against the asbestos trust? Attorneys collect fees for both the claim against the current company and the trust left behind by a company no longer in business."
These lawsuits, many of which I-LAW described as "frivolous," may also be costing the State of Illinois more jobs and residents. It is no secret Illinois is in dire straits when it comes to issues such as job creation and migration out of the state, and I-LAW assures lawsuit reform would be some of the first steps toward drawing more business into the state.
"The reality is companies look to move to states where the legal climate is fair, which is why the Metro East's status as the 'Lawsuit Abuse Capital of the U.S.' is making it extremely difficult to attract new employers," Madison County Board Member Mike Walters said in a release. "Even worse, the Metro East is actually losing jobs, as companies have moved across our borders to states like Missouri that have recently passed common sense lawsuit reforms to make it less likely that businesses there will be frivolously sued."
Akin said these rallies are done in view of bordering states to illustrate to people how easy it would be for a business to make that move. He said many businesses have left Illinois to do just that, at least partially due to a lack of lawsuit reforms.
"The cost of fighting a frivolous lawsuit could put a small business out of business," Frerichs Freight Lines owner Bill Frerichs said. "I know firsthand as a business owner that the threat of a lawsuit is ever present here in the Metro East. Now, with Missouri making their lawsuit system fairer, we should not be surprised to see employers leaving the Metro East to set up shop in a state where they won't have a lawsuit target on their back."