St. Clair, Madison counties once again named 'judicial hellholes'

News-DemocratDecember 17, 2013 

St. Clair and Madison counties once again were added to the list of the country's "Top 5 Worst Judicial Hellholes" by the American Tort Reform Foundation.

Madison County has been named six times since the list debuted in 2002; St. Clair County has been on the list four times.

The ATRF was formed in 1986 and advocates tort reform.

Its membership consists of about 300 businesses, corporations, municipalities, associations and professional associations.

The ATRF defines a "judicial hellhole" as "a place where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner."

The report is based on independent research, feedback from its members and by compiling the most significant court rulings and legislative actions during the past year, according to the organization.

Madison and St. Clair are the only counties in the Top 5. The rest of the list include the entire states of California, Louisiana, New York City and West Virginia. St. Clair and Madison counties appear jointly as No. 5 on the list.

Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla maintained the courthouse in Edwardsville is fair.

"I'm proud of all our judges. They are hardworking and fair," Hylla said. "It is a travesty to call this county a hellhole."

Among the reasons listed by ATRF for naming Madison County a judicial hellhole:

* One in four asbestos lawsuits filed in the U.S. are filed in Madison County Circuit Court.

* Only one in 10 of the lawsuits filed in Madison County is filed by a plaintiff who ever worked or lived in the county.

"I understand their organization's goal is to reduce or eliminate liability for corporations. That's what motivates them to do this," Hylla said.

"The role of the judiciary is not to limit access to the courthouse," he continued.

Less than 1 percent of the asbestos cases filed in Madison County are asked to be removed from the county by defense lawyers, Hylla said.

Among the reasons listed by ATRF for naming St. Clair County a judicial hellhole:

* It draws a high number of product liability lawsuits from around the country.

* A growing number of asbestos cases continue to be filed in St. Clair County.

* The number of lawsuits against the maker of diabetes drug Avandia because they failed to warn of potential side-effects.

St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic said he did not have any idea what criteria ATRF used to decide which counties were hellholes.

"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.

"When motions for a change of venue are filed, they are argued and heard and decided on a case by case basis," Baricevic said.

Baricevic said judges were like baseball umpires, making calls.

"Somebody is going to be happy with the call. Somebody is going to be unhappy with the call," Baricevic said. "No matter the outcome, half the people are going to be unhappy with outcome in a legal case. Somebody wins. Somebody loses."

Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch is a watchdog group of citizens, community leaders and small businesses working to educate the public about lawsuit abuse.

"The news that Madison and St. Clair Counties were named to the list of the country's 'Top 5 Worst Judicial Hellholes' is not the Christmas gift metro-east residents were hoping to receive," said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

"By swamping our courts with cases that have little to nothing to do with Madison and St. Clair Counties and sinking our courts deeper into a judicial hellhole, personal injury lawyers have put a lump of coal in every metro-east resident's stocking this holiday season."

According to Akin, lawsuit abuses in metro-east courts go beyond the infamous asbestos docket. The two counties continue to attract frivolous lawsuits that target local small businesses and hurt job growth and the local economy.

In one case, a man sued a local kennel after his dog bit him. The man claimed in his suit that the kennel failed to properly train the dog. In another, a woman sued a local real estate company for not warning her not to walk around a house that was for sale. The woman drove by the property, saw it was for sale, took a walk around on her own and injured her ankle.

"Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she filed a lawsuit," Akin said. "These types of frivolous lawsuits sound funny, but they are no laughing matter for the small businesses sued and the people they employ. One junk lawsuit can put a small business out of business."

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