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Cook County, Illinois

A Hellhole since 2005, Cook County continues to be a magnet for plaintiffs not only from Illinois, but from all across the country, as well. Statistics show that the county has consistently hosted nearly two thirds of the state’s litigation, while serving as home to just over 40% of its population – a proportion that has gradually grown more lopsided over the past 15 years. Other recent surveys ranking states’ overall litigation climates have singled out Cook County as the worst litigation environment in the country. This year, there was very little to change that long-held perception.

Early in 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court set the tone by affirming a Cook County judge’s ruling that struck down a 2005 law limiting subjective pain and suffering damages in medical liability cases. This ruling invites, once again, an increase in medical claims, along with the higher insurance premiums for doctors that such cases precipitate. In fact, a study conducted in the wake of the high court’s decision to strike down limits on noneconomic damages calculated the impact to be an immediate 18% jump in physician medical malpractice insurance premiums. Over time, and depending on the volume of claims and award amounts, this number may grow much higher.

Ultimately, such increases in the level of new litigation and insurance premiums will affect residents’ access to affordable health care as physicians scale back practices, particularly in high risk areas, or opt to move their practices to states with reasonable limits on liability. A recent survey found that half of Illinois medical students plan to practice in other states. As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, 7 out of 10 of those choosing to practice elsewhere cited the state’s anti-doctor liability climate as a factor in their decision.

Already, the adverse effects can be seen in Cook County. In October, a jury there awarded a woman over $3 million because she was not offered a C-section for her son who weighed more than the average child at birth. The lawsuit claimed this failure to offer a C-section resulted in an injury to the child’s arm, justifying a multi-million dollar award.

Elsewhere in the county, the litigation engine rolled on as usual with numerous questionable claims and awards, as in previous years. For example, in a virtual throwback to the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in 1994, a plaintiff sued a Cook County McDonald’s in August 2010, alleging that her hot chocolate was too hot. Notwithstanding the fact that the word “hot” is in the name of the product, the plaintiff claimed damages in excess of $50,000 for burns allegedly sustained by her daughter when the hot chocolate spilled. The lawsuit, which is still pending at press-time, also charges that McDonald’s failed to adequately secure the cup’s lid.

In another Cook County case, a plaintiff sued an Ohio-based vacuum-maker for $200,000 after apparently sucking hair off her own head while using the vacuum. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the lawsuit alleges that the vacuum cleaner was defective and that it was sold without adequate warnings about the risk of injury. Apparently, the everyday wisdom of “Do not stick things in a vacuum cleaner you don’t want sucked up” requires additional elaboration.

A final case illustrates how this hellhollish county has developed into something of a national testing ground for precedent-setting litigation and awards for damages. In September, a Cook County jury returned the largest verdict ever, $30.4 million, in a so-called “popcorn lung” case. Such lawsuits allege that exposure to an ingredient used in the making of butter-flavored microwave popcorn can cause injury to the lungs. In this case, the jury not only agreed that the plaintiff popcorn factory worker’s lung disease was caused by exposure to the ingredient, it returned a whopping award that will invariably be cited by plaintiffs’ lawyers in other jurisdictions and encourage similar claims.

Of course, such rampant abuse of the civil justice system comes with costs. As Illinois’ unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher than the national average, an in-depth study undertaken by Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch also found that the Cook County government’s spending to defend itself against lawsuits dwarfs counties of similar size in the state and beyond. I-LAW attributes the county’s $54 million expenditure on litigation costs in 2009 alone to the county’s “infamously plaintiff-friendly courts.”

But apparently, the folks running Cook County’s court system have little desire to curb the filing of questionable lawsuits, show restraint in awarding damages, or otherwise heed calls for reform. Litigation there, after all, is a booming business for both plaintiffs’ attorneys and the courts. According to the most recent statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Cook County Circuit Courts alone collect over $111 million annually in filing fees and other revenue, more than all other Illinois counties combined. Though litigation abuse clearly hurts the area’s business climate, it seems that an ingrained dependence on litigation industry-derived revenues has overwhelmed common sense.

And amazingly enough, Cook County voters and taxpayers also seem content with the status quo. Though several neutral legal groups deemed four circuit court judges unqualified for the bench, all were narrowly retained by voters in November 2010 elections.

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