Cook County’s fall this year from Judicial Hellholes rankings to the Watch List is the result of a relatively quiet year there. Nevertheless, no substantive civil justice reforms have been undertaken in Illinois, and Chicagoland maintains its reputation as one of the most plaintiff-friendly areas in the United States. That reputation, in part, explains why a recent survey of CEOs cited Illinois as the third worst state in which to do business.
Take, for instance, the case of Dominic Choate, who, while hanging out with his teenage friends, decided to impress his girlfriend by jumping on a moving freight train. He ignored posted warning signs and made not one, but three attempts to jump onboard the train – ultimately losing his leg below the knee when he slipped. He had been caught on the tracks before and warned by his mother to stay away from trains or he could get seriously hurt. So who is at fault? The Cook County Circuit Court initially made the correct decision by dismissing the case in favor of the railroad on the grounds that jumping on a train was an “open and obvious danger,” but later reversed itself and allowed the case to proceed to a jury. A jury returned a $6.5 million verdict against the railroad, which was reduced to $3.9 million to reflect the plaintiff’s apparent 40 percent share of responsibility. This summer, the First District Appellate Court upheld the verdict and, in doing so, relied on the figures of an expert for the plaintiff who vastly underestimated the cost of surrounding thousands of feet of track with a chain-link fence and placing an overpass above the tracks, as well as the likely ineffectiveness of such measures. Unless the Illinois Supreme Court overturns the trial and appellate courts, this case will signal all property owners in the state that they can ultimately be left on the hook for trespassers’ injuries, even when evidence shows trespassers appreciated the risks and made poor decisions.
But there may be reason for some optimism. Two years ago, when Cook County clinched the #3 Judicial Hellhole spot, this report noted an absurd case in which an emergency siren manufacturer was hit with a $425,000 verdict because its sirens were defectively loud. While such cases had been dismissed in other states, a Cook County jury, with less than two hours of deliberation, found that Federal Signal was responsible for the hearing loss of firefighters riding to emergencies. Obviously it is essential that sirens are loud both for the protection of the firefighters and the public. The 2009 verdict is still on appeal, but since that time the company has won 16 of the 17 similar trials in Pennsylvania. This November another such lawsuit went to trial in Cook County and ended in a defense verdict.
The lack of faith in Cook County’s civil justice system may stem, in part, from the Chicago-style party politics used to select its judges. In Cook County, getting “slated” for a judgeship is really about whom you know and whether you have paid your dues to the dominant Democratic Party there. The process undoubtedly results in some well-qualified judges, but it is clear that the candidates’ legal credentials are secondary to party loyalty in the nominating process. Even when voters have rejected judges at the ballot, the practice of the Illinois Supreme Court for many years has been to reappoint them to the Cook County Circuit Court bench – by recalling “retired” judges. This year the state’s high court pledged to discontinue this practice.