No Longer “Judicial Hellhole”–But Asbestos Claims Are Up

Regular readers of this column are no doubt familiar with Madison County, Illinois, as it has had a reputation since 2004 as the asbestos litigation capital of the U.S., closely followed by St. Clair and Kanawha (West Virginia).
According to the American Tort Reform Association, Madison County has now shed that title–which may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether you’re a corporate CEO or a victim of corporate malfeasance.

Suffice it to say that corporate America is celebrating the overall decline in asbestos suits over the past few years. According to Judge Ann Callis, six years ago there was an average of 850 asbestos suits filed in Madison County every year. By 2006, that number had dropped to 325. In 2007 however, asbestos suits were up slightly, increasing to 444.

Edward Murnane, who heads the Illinois Civil Justice League, says that number is misleading. “Any attorney can file a suit, but it is the court that decides what it is going to do with that suit,” he says. “If 400 suits are filed, it may be a while before it gets on someone’s docket and then the judge may decide it doesn’t belong.”

President George W. Bush visited Madison County in 2005 to promote Senator Arlen Specter’s tort reform bill (the ironically-named “FAIR” Act) that would have stripped many asbestos victims of their right to sue and while protecting corporations from most of the financial repercussions of asbestos use.

Much to the relief of many asbestos victims and those who work on their behalf, that bill died in committee the following year. The “Ban Asbestos in America Act” approved by the US Senate does not address asbestos lawsuits; Madison County courts are dealing with the issue on a local level–primarily by discouraging the practice of “forum shopping” by plaintiff’s lawyers.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the actions that Madison County courts are taking to discourage such “forum shopping” and the implication for asbestos victims in other states.