A growing number of filings and continued questionable rulings place Madison County, once a perennial Judicial Hellhole, on the very precarious edge of sinking back in again. The largely rural county in the southwestern part of Illinois seems to be detouring from its recent road toward progress.
At its worst in the early part of last decade, little Madison County was home to numerous nationwide class actions, asbestos claims filed by individuals from all across the country, extraordinarily high verdicts, and prejudicial court rulings. Its high medical malpractice insurance rates led physicians to flee the area, and in 2005, former President George Bush visited the county to highlight the need for Congress to pass the Class Action Fairness Act. In the years that followed, reforms spurred by Chief Judge Ann Callis, and a new manager of the court’s asbestos docket, Judge Daniel Stack, significantly reduced forum shopping and abuse of the system.
Today, however, there are increasingly troubling signs of backsliding. In 2006, asbestos cases had waned to 325 after waxing to a high of about 950 in 2003. In 2009, however, the number of such filings surged back up to 814, and the final count is expected to reach 840 this year. Some defendant companies report that the number of lawsuits filed against them in Madison County has doubled over the past four years. The court has put out the welcome mat for such cases by setting aside more time for asbestos trials. The number of asbestos trial slots has climbed from 424 in 2009, to 490 in 2010, and to 520 in 2011. This places growing pressure on defendants to settle even meritless cases.
According to a study conducted by the Illinois Civil Justice League, just 11% of those who filed these asbestos claims live or work in, or have any other connection to Madison County. Rather, these claims involved residents from at least 40 other states. In fact, this small county handles roughly one quarter of the entire nation’s mesothelioma lawsuits, and this is hardly a coincidence.
On July 30, a retiring Judge Stack handed over control of this insanely crowded asbestos docket to Judge Barbara Crowder. It remains to be seen how she will address forum shopping and whether she will establish fair procedures for handling cases.
Over the past few years, Judge Stack backed away from earlier decisions for which he had gained a reputation as a no-nonsense judge who was willing to throw out claims that did not belong in Madison County. For example, an appellate court in September 2010 overruled a decision by Judge Stack that allowed the wife of a deceased former railroad worker who had lived in Texas, and worked in Ohio and Michigan, to sue in Madison County simply because it was supposedly more convenient for her locally-based lawyer.
“Because the plaintiff resides outside of Illinois, the decedent resided outside of Illinois, the alleged exposure occurred outside of Illinois, the identified witnesses including the treating physicians resided outside of Illinois and are not subject to Illinois subpoenas, and a jury view of the injury site would occur outside of Illinois, the private interest factors weigh heavily in favor of a dismissal,” the appellate court ruled. If given proper respect by other trial courts, this sound appellate decision could significantly reduce brazen forum shopping by plaintiffs’ lawyers throughout Illinois. Hope springs eternal.
On a far less hopeful note, however, an appellate court affirmed a Madison County verdict that held Ford liable after an elderly couple’s Lincoln Town Car was rear ended in stand-still traffic by a distracted driver who was looking for her sunglasses while traveling up to 65 mph. A pipe wrench in the Lincoln’s trunk thrust into the gas tank, igniting the car, killing the husband and severely injuring the wife. Their family claimed Ford should have made them aware of the availability of a “trunk pack,” designed for Crown Victoria Police Interceptors and sold to police departments, that reinforces the gas tank against high speed rear collisions for which officers, who often idle on the side of highways, are at particular risk. Although there was no evidence of other Lincoln Town Cars exploding when rear ended, the jury awarded the plaintiffs’ $43 million, including $15 million in punitive damages. Unless overturned, the logic of such a decision would require manufacturers to design and sell, at unfathomable prices, products that are literally indestructible and able to survive extremely unlikely accidents.
In a foreboding sign of Madison County courts slipping back into the ranks of Judicial Hellholes, the trial court in this Lincoln case issued several unbalanced evidentiary rulings for the plaintiffs and against the defendants. For instance, the trial court refused to let the jury consider that the car’s gas tank not only exceeded federal standards at the time the car was manufactured in 1993, but continued to meet significantly higher standards adopted over a decade later. On the other hand, the court permitted the jury to hear evidence of numerous other accidents involving Ford cars, none of which involved the model car driven by the plaintiffs. It also allowed the jury to consider efforts Ford later took to improve the safety of police cars, when such remedial measures are typically excluded so as not to punish manufacturers who strive to improve the safety of their products. An appeal is now pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.
In another throwback to Madison County’s days as “America’s Class-Action Capital,” local lawyers are taking on Blimpie sandwich shops, alleging that the sandwich chain is shorting customers on the meat in their “Super Stacked” sandwiches. The case, brought on behalf of all people who purchased a Super Stacked sandwich in Illinois, seeks a finding of statutory fraud and as much as $75,000 per person, and asks the court for an injunction against any further skimping on meat.
But all may not be lost. This year, a Madison County jury took just 90 minutes to find in favor of Ford in a case wherein the plaintiff claimed that his exposure to brake-dust while working as a mechanic caused his mesothelioma. The defense argued that, even if the plaintiff had worked on Ford brakes, which was in doubt, the dust contained just 1% asbestos, and the level of the plaintiff’s exposure could not have caused his injury. As the lead defense counsel stated after the verdict, “It’s a new day in Madison County for corporate America. Not only did we get a great jury, we got a terrific, fair and impartial judge.” As the first asbestos trial of 2010 and the first heard by Judge Crowder, it may be reason for optimism.