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It's Called A "Hellhole." But Madison County Defense Attorneys Say Better The Devil You Know

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)

Every year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) releases its annual list of so-called “judicial hellholes," a term it uses to refer to civil courts that ATRA believes are consistently unfair to corporate defendants.

Madison County, Ill. has been either been high on the hellhole list or on the watch list since the first report was published in 2002. The primary reason for the designation: the vast amount of asbestos litigation its court handles.

But those who make their living from the system say "hellhole" isn't an accurate description of the system.

The numbers provided by ATRA's communications director Darren McKinney sound shocking.  In 2014, there were more than 1,500 asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County.  That number accounts for more than a quarter of the asbestos cases filed nationwide, even though only 268,000 people live in Madison County.

"Roughly 90 percent of the plaintiffs with cases pending in Madison County not only have no connection to the county, they have no connection to the state of Illinois," McKinney says.

The Simmons Law Firm, where Michael Angelides is the managing partner, represents people who are allegedly hurt by asbestos.  On average, his firm files 200 to 300 of the nearly 1,000 asbestos cases in Madison County a year. That's half of the firm's yearly workload. The data make it easy to wonder if the Tort Reform Association is onto something . Angelides disagrees.

"They like to put out a lot of press that it’s not a good deal," he says. "The proof is in the pudding. The cases are filed here. The defendants could move to dismiss or transfer the cases at any time, and the proof is that they don’t do that."

A landmark verdict - in many ways

Angelides’s firm made national headlines in 2003 when it won the largest asbestos-related verdict for a single plaintiff in history – $250 million. But that was the last time a corporation lost an asbestos case in Madison County. In general, just a tiny fraction of those 1,000 cases go to trial. The rest are settled, although the sheer volume makes that expensive as well.

Attorney Jeff Hebrank has defended corporations against thousands of asbestos cases since he joined the firm of Hepler Broom in 1988. He says his clients have always gotten a fair shake in Madison County, and that's why he hesitates to use the phrase "judicial hellhole," with its implications of rogue judges and runaway juries.

Still, Hebrank doesn't think all is right in the county's civil courts.

"The plaintiffs are looking for a place these days to get quick trial dates, and I think that's probably the main attraction," he said.

The rocket docket

Illinois’ so-called “rocket docket” means that the terminally ill – which includes many with asbestos-related illnesses – can get a case from filing to trial in six months. Hebrank understands why the system is set up to speed along cases involving terminally ill people. But he says the result is many cases end up on the docket that shouldn't be there.

"It doesn't mean that you don't have a lawsuit, but it certainly doesn't mean that you need an expedited trial," Hebrank says. "Some we don't have an adequate time to prepare for. These cases are multi-million dollar cases, and they’re very expensive, lots of experts, and it is very burdensome to have to work up many cases on a short string.”

It's especially hard when neither the plaintiff nor the company they're suing has any connection to Illinois. But despite all that, Hebrank says there  area lot of reasons not to move cases from Madison County.

"If these cases were going to be dismissed and go away, that would be one thing," he said. "But we know that they’re going to move to another jurisdiction. They're going to have to be dealt with someplace. So the clients and lawyers are trying to find how to do that most cost-effectively."

"That's a cop-out on their part."

Hebrank's resignation is all Ed Murnane of the Illinois Civil Justice League needs to justify calling Madison County a judicial hellhole.

"For them to say well, that’s not going to do us any good, that’s a cop-out on their part," Murnane said. "That’s an indication that the system itself overall, not just the plaintiff side but the defense side is lacking in justice, and lacking in fairness."

Attorneys are eventually going to run out of asbestos cases to litigate, Murnane said, but that just leaves a vacuum to be filled by something.

Defense attorney Jeff Hebrank is already seeing that happen. He says a law firm based in New York has filed nearly 800 lung cancer cases in Madison County over the last two years.

Follow Rachel Lippnann on Twitter:  @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.