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Cook County, Illinois

Cook County remains on the Watch List for the third straight year as a preferred place for personal injury lawyers to file their claims . There is no reason to believe the litigation environment has improved in Chicago, which for several years ranked among the worst Judicial Hellholes . In fact, a recent appellate court ruling may blow more product liability claims into the Windy City as it already spends millions annually defending itself against various lawsuits . Unfortunately, it is a jurisdiction that warrants continued close scrutiny .

LAYING OUT THE WELCOME MAT FOR PRODUCT LIABILITY CLAIMS

Cook County remains a jurisdiction of choice for personal injury lawyers around Illinois and beyond . Due to a recent appellate court ruling, its dockets may get more crowded .

Jack Taylor lived in Lewiston, Illinois, in Fulton County . He purchased a motocross-style bike in Iowa . He then bought an aluminum rim tire with compliant spokes for the bike in East Peoria, Illinois . One day, Taylor took his bike to a course in Walton, Illinois, in Bureau County . While riding the bike, he performed a jump and blew out the front tire upon landing . He was injured in the fall and taken to a nearby hospital in Princeton, Illinois, in Bureau County . Taylor received follow up orthopedic care in Peoria County . The three witnesses to the accident live in Fulton and Bureau counties . The doctor who treated him practices in Bureau County . Taylor blamed his injury on the bike and component part makers, two of which are located in Wisconsin . A third named defendant operates out of Rock Falls in Whiteside County, Illinois, about 56 miles from Bureau County, but 132 miles from the Cook County courthouse .

If you are a regular reader of the Judicial Hellholes report, you know how this story ends . Taylor’s lawyer filed the lawsuit in Cook County, a place where his client did not live, did not purchase the product, was not injured and was not treated; and where none of the witnesses lived, and none of the businesses sued was located . Why? Because, odds are, he would receive more favorable court treatment in Cook County than in any of the counties with a more logical connection to the claim .

The companies hauled into Cook County asked the court to transfer the case to Bureau County, where the bike accident occurred, to no avail . The Cook County Circuit Court denied their motion and, in October, an appellate court affirmed that decision .

The appellate court’s faulty reasoning not only impacts where Taylor’s case is heard, it could have a wide- reaching impact on automobile, pharmaceutical, and other lawsuits that arise in the state . The ruling lays out a welcome mat for personal injury lawyers to file product liability lawsuits at the Richard J . Daley Center, no matter where in the state the injury occurred . The court found that where the primary issue in the case is product liability, the location of the accident is less significant in deciding where it should be heard than in other types of cases . The mere fact that the defendant companies sold their products in Chicago, the appellate court found, gave the Cook County Circuit Court a sufficient interest to decide the case . The court downplayed the inconvenience of litigating the case far from where the witnesses, parties, lawyers, and documents are located . “Computer technology and Internet access,” the court said, reduced such concerns .

The appellate court’s decision will make it extremely difficult for manufacturers who face a lawsuit filed in Cook County to have their case transferred to a county that has a reasonable connection to the claim .

‘THE CITY THAT SETTLES’

A recent Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW) report showed that Chicago has spent $192 million on lawsuits since 2012 . As a result, the city’s ability to provide adequate funding for education and other public services has been trou- blingly limited . The city cut $68 million from the Chicago Public Schools budget this year, leading to the layoff of over 3,000 teachers and school-based staff . Chicago spent $87 million defending against lawsuits in 2012, and in just the first four months of 2013, the City spent a whopping $105 million on lawsuits . According to the I-LAW study, the city has spent nearly $500 million of hard-earned taxpayer money on lawsuit defense just since 2008 .

Consequently, students enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools this year will have larger classes, fewer music and arts programs, and fewer field trips and learning interventionists as a result of the hundreds of millions of dollars
Chicago has spent defending itself against lawsuits .

And the problem is getting worse . In 2012, the city settled or resolved 914 lawsuits, almost three per day . “The fact that the City of Chicago is sued so often should not be a surprise,” Travis Akin, the Executive Director of I-LAW, said, noting that Cook County is considered one of the worst local courts in the country . “Lawyers from all across the country come to Cook County to file their junk lawsuits, making Cook County
one of the premier destinations for lawsuit tourists . It is clear that the City is perceived as an easy mark by some personal injury lawyers and has earned a reputation not as ‘The City That Works’ but as ‘The City That Settles .’”

Chicago managed to cut its bill for lawsuits in half, it would allow the public school system to rehire 1,403 laid off teachers, restore program cuts, provide an additional $260 of spending per student, and reduce student fees that were raised by close to 90% at many schools this year .

The culture of lawsuit abuse in Chicago has an impact on the job market, too . Chicago’s stubbornly high unemployment rate in October 2013 was 8 .3%, significantly higher than the national average . “Employers look to build or expand their businesses where the legal system is fair,” Akin said . “Not only are lawsuits limiting funding for schools, but lawsuit abuse is costing the area jobs and opportunities . It is time for city officials to make reforming Cook County courtrooms a priority .”

CONSUMER CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT ABUSE

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Thomas Zimmerman has carved a niche for himself filing class action lawsuits . He was among the plaintiffs’ lawyers who jumped on the bandwagon after a photo that an Australian teenager posted on Subway’s Facebook page went viral . The photo, which depicted a Subway “Footlong” sandwich measuring marginally less than 12 inches, sparked class action lawsuits a world away . Zimmerman’s suit is one of two filed in the Northern District of Illinois, located in Chicago . The other copycat cases were filed in Arkansas, California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania .

Zimmerman’s lawsuit claims that Subway engaged in deceptive conduct by advertising the sandwich as a “foot- long” sub because the subs sometimes measure less than a full 12 inches . The plaintiff argued Subway has violated the consumer protection laws of all 50 states and demanded restitution, including actual damages, treble damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and costs on behalf of everyone in the country who has purchased a Footlong sandwich .

But considering that a Subway Footlong purchased ran- domly in Washington, D .C . last January as part of an objective Judicial Hellholes fact-finding mission actually measured closer to 13 inches (see nearby photo), reasonable, non- litigious people might conclude that, since sub-roll baking is presumably a far less precise science than, say, docking spacecraft, Subway’s “footlong” rolls probably average pretty close to 12 inches . And it’s quite likely that for every 11 .5 inch roll someone can find, someone else can find a 12 .5 inch roll . Of course, the 12 .5 inch rolls would probably draw lawsuits, too, by those claiming that Subway made them fat by foisting more calories on them than they expected .

But for the time being, Zimmerman will have to take his self-righteous indignation on the road . In June, a federal panel on multidistrict litigation transferred all of these footlong lawsuits to a federal court in Wisconsin for coordination .

Subway wasn’t the only company targeted by Zimmerman in 2013 . Earlier this year, using the same named plaintiff as in the Subway case, he filed a class action case alleging noncompliance with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), this time over a seemingly minute, but potentially devastating misread on the part
of Airgas Inc . The lawsuit was also filed in federal court in Chicago . Specifically, the suit alleges that the plaintiffs received, from Airgas, a “computer-generated cash register receipt which displayed the last four digits of the plaintiff ’s credit card number as well as the card’s expiration date .” This sounds innocent at first, but the relevant section in FACTA provides that “no person that accepts credit cards or debit cards for the transaction of business shall print more than the last five digits of the card number or the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of sale or transaction .”

The court dismissed the case due to lack of evidence . But in true Illinois fashion, the judge ordered that the plaintiff have an opportunity for discovery . This preposterous order allows for a fishing expedition to ensue . To make matters worse, even without proof of loss, credit card and debit card users can, according to statute, recover damages in an amount not less than $100 and not more than $1,000 for each act of willful noncompliance . Damages under FACTA are not capped, so a retailer could be liable for up to $1,000 per transaction even without any proof of loss by the customer .

This isn’t the first lawsuit of its kind that Zimmerman has filed . He has made FACTA into a cash cow . His website contains a list of nearly 30 such cases filed over the past few years in Illinois courts . In 2011, he filed a very similar suit against Joe Caputo and Sons, Inc . and demanded a whopping $294 million, even though the class of plaintiffs had suffered no actual losses . The case later settled for over a half million dollars, of which Zimmerman received $275,000 in attorney’s fees . Settlements in other cases yielded discounts or small vouchers toward future purchases for consumers and more fees for Zimmerman .

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