Remaining on the list of Judicial Hellholes this year, Madison and neighboring St. Clair counties are perennial Judicial Hellholes that, in the past, have made ten- tative steps forward only to stumble backward. Both jurisdictions welcome plaintiffs’ lawyers, with Madison County serving as the nation’s busiest asbestos court, while St. Clair hosts pharmaceutical product liability claims from near and far.
MADISON COUNTY: THE NATION’S ASBESTOS COURT
Madison County continues to cement its status as America’s busiest asbestos court. Despite having only .008% of the U.S. population, Madison County now accounts for one in four asbestos lawsuits filed in the U.S. Only 1 in 10 of the lawsuits filed in Madison County is filed by a plaintiff who ever worked or lived in the county. Plaintiffs come from as far as Texas and Virginia to file cases in this notoriously plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction, where defendants are routinely denied rights they receive in almost every other court in the country.
Last year, Madison County broke its record for asbestos lawsuit filings with 1,563 new cases. This year, it is on track to break that record. According to Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida, 793 asbestos suits had been filed as of June 2013, as plaintiffs’ firms from all over the country continue to flock to Madison County. The firm of Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, headquartered in NYC, recently opened up a small office in Edwardsville, and in 2012 they filed 343 lawsuits, behind only two other firms doing business in Illinois. Two local firms, Simmons Law Firm and Gori Julian & Associates, filed 500 and 340 respectively, and the top five players were rounded out by out-of-state firms.
Competition between plaintiffs’ lawyers over a limited number of high-value mesothelioma claims has led some firms to bring more lawsuits on behalf of people who develop lung cancer, which may not have been caused by exposure to asbestos. The percentage of asbestos lawsuits involving lung cancer claims increased from 40% to 51% between 2009 and 2012. A significant number of these lung cancer cases are coming from the Napoli firm, which, local defense lawyers observe, has only ramped up its lawsuit filings in 2013.
Timothy Krippner, an asbestos defense attorney in Chicago, observes that “[w]ithin the last 18 months, we have seen a dramatic increase across the nation.” Krippner believes “that the greatest force behind the increased filings in Madison County and elsewhere, and the greatest threat to the viability of the resources needed for people with mesothelioma, are these lung cancer cases.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. This November, a rare asbestos case that went to trial in Madison County ended in a verdict for the defendant, Georgia Pacific. Jurors agreed that the amount and type of asbestos the plaintiff was exposed to as a result of the defendant’s products could not have caused him to develop mesothelioma, but that asbestos insulation made by others was responsible. According to local observers, the case is the first to go to trial in about three years (since most defendants simply settle out of court).
Leadership changes in the Madison County judiciary provide an opportunity for progress. In May 2013, Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis stepped down from her post
to run for Congress in the 13th District. She had served as the court’s chief judge since 2006. Soon after her appointment, she helped improve Madison County’s reputation. For example, asbestos filings hit a Madison County low the year of her appointment, before gradually rising to record levels. Judge David Hylla has been named Callis’s successor as chief judge. In October, Chief Judge Hylla named Associate Judge Steve Stobbs as the new judge presiding over the Madison County asbestos docket, allowing the former presiding judge time away to focus on his judicial campaign. Judge Stobbs is regarded as energetic and sharp. But Madison County is not going to shed its reputation as a Judicial Hellhole until it makes substantive changes and no longer attracts opportunistic litigation tourists from across the country.
ST. CLAIR COUNTY
Madison County’s smaller neighbor, St. Clair County, shares its reputation. The adjacent county is dominated by many of the same plaintiffs’ lawyers, lawsuits, and litigation tactics that predominate in Madison County. It also has its own major players, such as personal injury attorney John Driscoll of St. Louis, who brings lawsuits in St. Clair against makers of prescription drugs and medical devices on behalf of people from places as far away as California, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.
St. Clair County draws product liability lawsuits from around the country and has recently become known as an epicenter for lawsuits accusing a pharmaceutical maker of selling the diabetes drug Avandia without sufficiently warning of potential side effects. On a single day this June, six Avandia lawsuits were filed in the St. Clair Circuit Court that included nearly 500 individual plaintiffs. The lawsuits were filed in groups of less than 100, likely for the purpose of avoiding removal of the cases as “mass actions” to federal court under the federal Class Action Fairness Act, a law sparked by abuses in the Metro East region.
While St. Clair’s asbestos docket is far smaller than Madison County, it still hosts a disproportionate share of such lawsuits and, like other jurisdictions, is experiencing a recent increase in the number of cases alleging that exposure to asbestos led to development of lung cancer.
As detailed in this report’s Points of Light section (see p. 49), in the final days of 2012 the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the St. Clair County Circuit Court after it refused to dismiss an asbestos claim of a Mississippi plaintiff who had no connection to Illinois. The high court’s action sends an important message that it will not allow plaintiffs’ lawyers to file lawsuits on behalf of people from around the country in St. Clair or other Illinois counties simply because those Illinois jurisdictions are more likely to produce favorable outcomes than are juris- dictions in plaintiffs’ home states.