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Cook County Makes its Judicial Hellhole Debut at No. 2

Move over Madison and St. Clare counties. There's a new judicial hellhole in the state of Illinois.

According to the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), Cook County, which includes Chicago, tops its neighboring jurisdictions on the 2005 list of judicial hellholes, coming in at No. 2. Formerly the reigning king and queen of the list, Madison and St. Clare counties have dropped to fourth and fifth respectively.

Filling the other slots are Texas' Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast regions at number one, the state of West Virginia at number three and South Florida at number six. The annual list ranks the jurisdictions that are most prejudicial against defendants in civil litigation.

"Within these counties, we see the willingness of trial judges to allow cases that don't belong there, increased incidents of class actions and an imbalance in the administration of procedures," says Sherman Joyce, ATRA's president.

The changed line-up of this year's report reflects the improvements Southern Illinois has made with regards to plugging up some of its judicial flaws while highlighting the growing problems of Cook County, which made its inaugural appearance on this year's list.

Rising Flame

Loose venue rules are a main contributor to Cook County's poor judicial status, according to ATRA. In one example plaintiffs' attorneys convinced a trial court in Cook County to take on a lawsuit that arose from a car accident. The accident occurred in DuPage County, the plaintiffs were from DuPage County and the plaintiffs received medical treatment mostly in DuPage County. Yet attorneys filed the lawsuit in Cook County on the basis that a helicopter transferred one of the injured to a Cook County hospital prior to his death and the medical examiner was located in Cook County. In the end the appellate court found that the lower court should have transferred the case.

"In Illinois, from the business standpoint, the number one reform priority is to fix the venue problem," says Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a statewide coalition of citizens, businesses, organizations and governments that advocate tort reform. "Let plaintiffs' attorneys ask for $100 million. But let them ask for $100 million in a location that makes sense."

Cook County's size also was a factor in its judicial degeneration. Because Cook County is Illinois' most populous county, judicial reform falls by the wayside in favor of more publicized issues.

"So much goes on in Cook County that you just don't see news about the bad judicial system on the front page of the Chicago Tribune," Murnane says.

Oddly, Madison and St. Clare counties' improvements may be partly to blame for Cook County's fall. Plaintiffs' attorneys are migrating out of Southern Illinois into new venues. For example, asbestos litigation in Cook County rose nearly 40 percent from 2003 to 2004 while asbestos litigation dropped off in Madison County.

"Because other jurisdictions are beefing up their rulings on venue and forum non conveniens issues, there are certainly cases that previously would have been filed in Madison County that are now being filed in Cook County," says Bill Gantz, a litigation partner at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary in Chicago.

Yet Gantz doesn't believe Cook County deserves its newly bestowed title. Although he admits the county has its problems, he still feels calling it the number two judicial hellhole in the country is over-the-top.

"My experience is that appropriate motions challenging venue and lack of product identification are being brought and granted in Cook County," he says.

Burning Embers

While Cook County's ranking may be debatable, few would balk at Madison and St. Clare's chastisement. Although the system in Southern Illinois remains a plaintiff-friendly hotspot, it seems that the hellhole is beginning to cool off. The rate of lawsuit filings in Madison County is at its lowest since before 2000. Asbestos filings in Madison County dropped to 477 in 2004--half the number filed in 2003.

Much of this improvement can be attributed to a shake-up in the area's judicial system following the November 2004 elections, which saw the replacement of plaintiff-friendly judges with those who have fewer sympathies for venue shoppers.

"There have been improvements in Madison County, particularly on the issue of forum shopping," Gantz says.

Public awareness also has helped repair Southern Illinois' damaged reputation. National press coverage helped alert the counties' citizens to the growing problems with medical malpractice litigation and other tort claims there. When the massive amount of medical-related litigation began to affect county residents, they lobbied their legislatures to help close the system's gaps.

"When citizens see doctors leaving and their access to healthcare declining, that becomes a serious issue," Murnane says.

Technology Editor

Keith Ecker

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