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March 27th, 2012

Asbestos Defendants Make Case against ‘Reservation’ Docket in Madison County

On Monday, March 26, more than 100 attorneys crowded into a Madison County courtroom to listen as 61 asbestos defendants asked Associate Judge Clarence Harrison to revise the court’s 2013 advance trial docket. 

Judge Harrison was put in charge of the rural county’s largest-in-the-nation asbestos docket in December, after Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder was removed from that position by Chief Judge Ann Callis when news broke of Crowder’s judicial retention campaign accepting $30,000 from three of the area’s largest asbestos firms.  Those firms were assigned 82% of the 2013 asbestos trial slots and, even in notoriously plaintiff-friendly Madison County, that was enough to create considerable controversy and a major headache for Callis who is also up for retention in November.

At the hearing before Judge Harrison, lead defense attorney Robert Shultz of Heyl Royster presented his proposal to eliminate the reservation system for preferred plaintiff’s firms, prioritize cases going to trial by the oldest ones with Illinois plaintiffs, and plainly identity cases for trial 60 days in advance.  Currently, plaintiffs’ firms specializing in asbestos claims are assigned blocks of trial dates before they’ve necessarily filed lawsuits or even consulted with potential clients.  According to Shultz’s research, 65% of all asbestos cases set for trial this year were filed after a trial date was given, allowing the firms to market the dates to victims nationally.  Last year in Madison County alone, 953 asbestos cases were filed — tying the county’s record high in 2003, when at least $1 billion in claims were resolved. 

Shultz also pointed out that 158 people are diagnosed annually with mesothelioma in Illinois, but Madison County has 500 plus trial dates a year for such claims.  Furthermore, Madison County comprises 2% of Illinois’ population, yet its taxpayers shoulder the burden of providing court resources for nearly 25% of the nation’s mesothelioma litigation.  Defense lawyers argued that this drastic increase in litigation has resulted in the excess of 80 bankruptcies in Madison County alone. 

The court’s trial reservation system is no longer being used for its original purpose, to resolve local asbestos lawsuits, but rather, it is being extorted for financial gains.  Plaintiffs from all across the country are flocking to Madison County to file their lawsuits. 

The situation is similar to the one followed closely by ATRA in Philadelphia.  And while we don’t necessarily expect Judge Harrison to order reforms as sweepingly dramatic as those ordered in February by Phildelphia’s Chief Administrative Judge John Herron, we hope he understands and will seize this opportunity to make real progress.  If he doesn’t, Madison County will certainly be cited again (and again and again) as a Judicial Hellhole.

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