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May 17, 2004
The Lawsuits of Madison County
In 2002, Madison County (Dec. 3, Oct. 7, etc.)--where juries and judges are notorious for finding liability where no other courts will--led the nation in class actions per capita when there were 77 filed in the state courts there. In 2003, the number of class actions filed in Madison County rose to 106. The number was three as recently as 1998. (Brian Brueggeman, "Class-action lawsuits set a record", Belleville News-Democrat, Jan. 2; Sanford J. Schmidt, "Debate renews in wake of record class action filings", Alton Telegraph, Jan. 4; Michael Bobelian, "Congress Eyeing Major Reforms Of Class Actions", New York Lawyer, Jan. 5).
One example of the forum shopping is a 2003 asbestos case of Whittington v. U.S. Steel. The plaintiff claimed to have been injured as a result of exposure to asbestos on the job in Gary, Indiana, and sued his former employer, U.S. Steel. A plaintiff-friendly judge let a legally frivolous argument against application of workers compensation laws go to the jury--which appears to be the first time a tort suit against an employer for asbestos exposure was permitted to get to a jury. The jury, on flimsy evidence that the asbestos exposure occurred at U.S. Steel or that U.S. Steel was negligent (helped by a ruling precluding U.S. Steel from showing the safety measures they had employees take), awarded $50 million in damages and $200 million in punitives. "I could hardly write it down," the jury foreman said. "I've never seen numbers that big." The size of the award, compounding at 9% interest, caused U.S. Steel to decide to settle for a fraction of that amount rather than take their chance with an appeal. (Paul D. Boynton, "$250 Million Asbestos Verdict Awarded Against U.S. Steel", Lawyers Weekly USA, 2004; Peter Page, "Asbestos Exposure Cases Draw Big Awards", National Law Journal, Apr. 10, 2003; Brian Brueggemann, "Man awarded $250 million in cancer case", Belleville News-Democrat, Mar. 29, 2003).
[cross-posted from Overlawyered, where it ran Jan. 5, 2004]
Posted by Ted Frank at 08:15 PM
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