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Madison County: Still America’s lawsuit field of dreams

If awards were given to courts that made the biggest impact in mega litigation, Madison County would surely be in the hall of fame.

For more than a decade, the little county in the metro-east has been the nation’s home field for lawsuits. And though Madison County is a veteran of the litigation big leagues, it is showing no signs of slowing down. This despite attention that helped spawn a major federal law written in large measure to counter the county court’s questionable practices.

That is why on Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform launched a public awareness campaign to bring fresh attention to the continuing problems of Madison County lawsuits.

Madison County burst on the scene as a national class action venue around the turn of the century. From 1996 to 2003, its class action docket exploded 5,000 percent, according to analysis of court filings, fueled by cases with plaintiffs and defendants almost exclusively from outside its borders.

This happened because the county was stocked with plaintiffs’-lawyer-friendly judges who refused to dismiss cases as the law demands, despite no local connection by either party. Keeping out-of-state cases in the plaintiffs’ lawyer home field forced lots of big settlements. And big settlements attract more lawsuits.

In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Class Action Fairness Act to stop plaintiffs’ lawyers from bringing out-of-state cases to lawsuit-friendly state courts — a practice known as venue shopping — by removing them to federal courts.

The law worked. Out-of-state class actions in Madison County and other plaintiffs’-lawyer-friendly jurisdictions plummeted, and for a time, there was hope that the courthouse in Edwardsville would become a fairer jurisdiction, reserved for its own citizens rather than people from Minnesota or Florida.

But it wasn’t to be. At the same time that the new federal law was removing misplaced, class actions in Madison County courts, asbestos case filings — which were also high but saw a brief decline in the mid-2000s — rose again precipitously. Madison County shifted from a class action mecca to an asbestos super docket, with the same old out-of-state cases tactic.

According to public case filings, in 2013, a record 1,660 asbestos cases were brought in Madison County. Only 20 of those involved people who actually live there. The other 99 percent were plaintiffs from places like Texas, California or just about anywhere other than Madison County.

Even the plaintiffs’ lawyers are mostly from out of state, with Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik LLP, a New York-based plaintiffs’ law firm, representing the majority of all asbestos cases in the county.

Madison County’s status as the nation’s courthouse is not by accident but by design. In a 2012 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, former Madison County asbestos docket judge Dan Stack bragged that “one-fourth of all asbestos cases filed in the U.S. get resolved in Madison County every year.”

Unfortunately, a trial lawyer-backed bill (SB 2221) currently being fast-tracked in Springfield would make the problem even worse. This bill, which would lift any time limit on filing certain asbestos cases, would further entice out-of-state plaintiffs’ lawyers to file their asbestos claims in Madison County courts.

While a “field of dreams” asbestos courthouse might seem a positive to Judge Stack and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, it is a nightmare for America’s businesses. And it is also plenty scary for the county’s taxpayers. After all, their tax dollars are funding lots of other people’s “day in court.”

Returning Madison County’s courthouse to its citizens will only happen if those whose taxes fund the courts are aware of the problem and speak out about it.

That includes urging their state legislators and governor to oppose harmful legislation, such as SB 2221.

That is why those who live in Madison County will be seeing our public awareness campaign.

The message is simple: Madison County courts should be for Madison County residents. Not citizens of Florida or Texas or California or any of the other states. And certainly shouldn’t be there to enrich out-of-state plaintiffs’ firms.

For the last 15 years and longer, those of us who care about a fair and just litigation system have been making the case about the problems in Madison County. Starting this week, we are taking the case directly to its citizens. Perhaps only then will the Madison County court understand that it’s time to take their name off the all-star list of the worst lawsuit jurisdictions in the nation.

Lisa A. Rickard is president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. To learn more, visit: www.cleanupmadcocourts.org.

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