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Groups spar again over whether legal environment killing Illinois business

From Illinois Business Journal news services

The Illinois Civil Justice League has released the findings of a study that it says concludes Illinois’ flawed legal environment has had a devastating impact on business expansion and job growth in the state.

But a longtime opponent group of trial lawyers said the study is another “shoddy” effort at misrepresenting facts to thwart attempts at bringing special interests to justice in negligence cases.

The study, titled Litigation Imbalance III, highlights what it calls the disparity of case filings and verdict totals in Cook, Madison, St. Clair and three other downstate counties compared to the state’s other 96 counties. Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW) also participated in a news conference on Tuesday in Chicago.

“Litigation Imbalance III is the third in a series of reports that examine major civil case filings in Illinois,” according to John Pastuovic, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a coalition of businesses and others that has long advocated tort reform. “This latest study has uncovered disturbing data that shows why business has been hesitant to invest in Illinois and has taken meaningful jobs elsewhere,” he said.

While the lawsuit landscape has improved in a significant portion of the state, “the problem has deepened in Cook County, intensified in Madison and St. Clair counties, and taken root in downstate Jackson, Jefferson and Williamson counties.”

To measure and better explain the differences between the counties, the League created the Litigation Index in 2005. The Litigation Index is determined by the number of cases filed per 1,000 persons of population in that county. For example, the Litigation Index for the 99 counties combined other than Cook, Madison, or St. Clair is 1.260 in 2013, the lowest in 41 years.

“Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends,” the League said.

In Cook County for example, the Litigation Index is 4.014, more than double the neighboring “collar” counties of DuPage, Lake, Kane, Kendall and Will. Moreover, while

Cook County is exactly 40.7 percent of the Illinois population, it accounts for 64.1 percent of all cases filed in Illinois.

“Even more disturbing, the average plaintiff award in Cook County was four times greater, an average of almost $1 million, when compared to awards in the surrounding counties,” Pastuovic said.

The “pariah of Illinois litigation continues to be Madison County,” where lawsuit filings average 8.255 per thousand persons, the League said in its statement. That is double the rate of Cook County; triple the rate of St. Clair County; and six and a half times the rate of the other 99 counties in Illinois combined.

With 1,678 filed asbestos cases in 2013, Madison County likely handles one-third to one-half of all asbestos-related cases filed in the entire United States each year.

“There is great secrecy surrounding the wealth exchanging hands through this docket, but with an estimated outcome of $2 million per case, the Madison County asbestos “rocket docket” could be worth more than $1.74 billion annually and could produce nearly $600 million annually in contingency fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys,” added Pastuovic.

Additionally, the study uncovered the formation of a “Litigation Triangle” among the counties of Jackson (Murphysboro/Carbondale), Jefferson (Mount Vernon) and Williamson (Marion) counties.

The Litigation Index in these counties shows above average litigation filing rates that are all more than two lawsuits per thousand persons. “This study once again confirms Illinois’ status as the ‘Lawsuit Abuse Capital of the Midwest,’ said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “The best way to start to turn around Illinois is for lawmakers to embrace the Governor’s proposed lawsuit reforms such as venue reform to stop personal injury lawyers from venue shopping for favorable Illinois court jurisdictions,” he said.

“Creating new and meaningful jobs is the solution for nearly every other major issue facing Illinois today. Unfortunately the data detailed in this report as well as the findings in other national studies have made small, medium and large companies justifiably gun shy about our state,” Pastuovic said. “Businesses cannot and will not reinvest in Illinois until these established, deep-rooted and documented problems are addressed once and for all.”

Trial lawyers respond

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, long a critic of the Civil Justice League’s efforts, was quick to release its own response to the study on Tuesday.

“In its ongoing quest to misinform and mislead the public and press, the Illinois Civil Justice League, a political front group for wealthy special interests and massive

corporations that wish to minimize the chances they might ever be held accountable for negligent or willful actions that harm innocent people, issued the latest edition of its periodic junk science studies whose conclusions were reached before the first word was written. As usual, ICJL offers a distorted view of the Illinois court system to serve the political and financial goals of its patrons, which are to maximize profits and further concentrate wealth with only a few, no matter the human toll,” the statement said.

“Is it really surprising that many lawsuits are filed in Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States, home to the nation’s third largest city, and the place of business for tens of thousands of companies, large and small? Even the nameless author(s?) of the ICJL “study” are forced to acknowledge as much, though without it altering their conclusions. Chicago and Cook County are the economic engines of the state of Illinois, with millions employed there and working for businesses that make ample use of the court system to protect their interests. Naturally, the use of the courts is higher there as a percent of total population, but that is a meaningless figure. Comparing the court system of Cook County, population 5.1 million, to that of Hardin County, population 4,320, is nonsensical. In fact, it stands to reason that were one to look at the population centers in any state, one would expect to find more court filings in them than in the state as a whole or compared to less populous areas, especially rural counties.”

The Trial Lawyers said that very few Americans ever file lawsuits. In Illinois, more than 70 percent of court actions are initiated by businesses suing other businesses or individuals for money.

“Since 2007, the number of all civil cases in Illinois courts is down 26 percent. As for medical malpractice cases, the number brought in our state has steadily declined over the past decade; it’s fallen more than 40 percent since 2003,” the lawyers group said.

Small businesses surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Business ranked lawsuits as 71st among the 75 issues that they find important; notions to the contrary, promoted again today, simply are at odds with reality. Taxes, energy prices, and the cost of labor are far more important factors for a company deciding where to locate, the statement said.

“As for the claims about the Metro East as a haven for lawsuits, a leading Madison County defense attorney who handles asbestos cases told St. Louis Public Radio on Jan. 15, 2014, that his clients have always received fair treatment in Madison County and he disagreed with the claim that it is a ‘judicial hellhole.’ He said cases are filed and defended in that jurisdiction because it is, in fact, cost-effective for defendants.”

The lawyers group also cited a story on the St. Clair County Courts on Dec. 13, 2013, in which the the Belleville News Democrat interviewed Chief Judge John Baricevic and reported:

“It’s tough to talk about justice because it’s all about perception,” Baricevic said. For example, there were 135 asbestos cases filed in the county, Baricevic said. Of those, six motions for a change of venue were filed. Three were denied; three were granted.”

The Trial Lawyers group said Illinois courts “provide an even-handed avenue for individuals to hold wrongdoers accountable – even the most powerful actors who, in other spheres of our government, exert vastly disproportionate influence over decision making. Much to the dismay of the wealthy benefactors behind the ICJL, our legal system serves as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct and, by design, it quickly dismisses the very few suits without merit.”

Front groups like ICJL intentionally demonize our civil justice system, spreading lies about lawsuits deterring business and driving unemployment in Illinois – all in an effort to prevent any legal action brought on behalf of individuals injured or killed as a result of negligence or wrongdoing by the powerful interests behind them.

“The ICJL’s shoddy ‘study’ wouldn’t be accepted at any peer-reviewed legal journal and its collection of selective statistics, incomplete data and foregone conclusions do not deserve to be taken at face value by the people of Illinois. Instead, it should be recognized for what it is, a pathetic attempt to put a phony academic gloss on the effort to strip middle and lower income Illinoisans of their constitutional right to access the courts their tax dollars fund,” the statement said.

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