Once the subject of an inspiring tale of recovery in the context of civil justice reform, Madison County, Illinois has found itself yet again featured in the American Tort Reform Association's annual 'Judicial Hellholes' report. Ranked fifth on ATRA's list, Madison County has unfortunately reclaimed its reputation as the nation's "epicenter" for asbestos litigation.
ATRA's report cites some alarming statistics:
In 2003, asbestos filings in the county peaked at 953. After Judicial Hellholes reporting spurred public scrutiny of the magnet jurisdiction, judges became more serious about transferring cases that belonged in other areas. By 2006, asbestos filings in Madison County reached a low point of 325. Since then, however, the number of such filings has increased each year to 455 in 2007, 639 in 2008, 814 in 2009, and 840 in 2010, as documented by Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW). Only about 1 in 10 of Madison County's asbestos cases are filed by people who actually live or work there, or have any other connection to the area, according to an Illinois Civil Justice League study. According to one local defense lawyer, asbestos claims account for nearly 60 percent of Madison County suits seeking more than $50,000, eclipsing the claims of local residents.As if in anticipation of ATRA's report, only days before the release of 'Judicial Hellholes', news broke that Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder of Madison County, assigned to oversee the circuit court's asbestos docket, was to be removed to civil assignments. Chief Judge Ann Callis filed the order after discovering that attorneys of three plaintiffs' firms donated, in sum, $30,000 to Judge Crowder's campaign fund only a few days subsequent to being chosen by Judge Crowder to receive a majority of the trial slots on the 2013 asbestos docket.
Defendant companies and other legal observers note that plaintiffs' lawyers flock to Madison County because the court sets aside about 500 trial dates for asbestos cases. The trial dates provide a steady stream of business for favored local law firms, with whom out-of-state lawyers must work to pursue their cases. Defendants are placed at a disadvantage given the expedited treatment of cases and the power given to plaintiffs' lawyers to set the trial schedule. Because defendants may not know which cases will go to trial until the last minute, they often prepare for multiple cases simultaneously, pay for expert reports they do not need, and must travel across the United States to take depositions.
Judge Crowder denied a connection between the donations and her "activities on the bench", but, there was no denying the appearance of impropriety especially in light of Madison County's notoriety with regard to asbestos litigation. Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, called on the court to "fix the fundamental flaw of Madison County's asbestos docket calendar system that in effect puts court time up for sale."
The Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform called for this and more in a report in 2010 focusing solely on reforming Madison County's warped asbestos litigation system, concluding even then:
The solution to this problem is simple: apply the law as written. If venue rules are enforced, fair procedures for trial allocation and scheduling adopted, discovery of the bankruptcy trusts provided and the Lipke rule regarding alternative cause implemented as mandated by the Illinois Supreme Court, the jurisdiction would return to normal and appropriate operations.
It was hoped that Judge Crowder would clean up the asbestos litigation abuse mess when she took over last year, however, it seems that fundamental procedural changes have to be implemented to effectively repair Madison County's civil justice system.