McLean County courts should end farce

The comedian W.C. Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

Unfortunately, McLean County courts do not…

The comedian W.C. Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

Unfortunately, McLean County courts do not ascribe to this wisdom. If they did, they wouldn’t continue to ignore the will of Illinois’ Supreme Court and appellate courts by handing out large verdicts in dubious asbestos cases that the upper courts keep rejecting.

The most recent rejection involves a 2009 case brought by a McLean County woman who contracted mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, from breathing asbestos fibers her husband brought home on his clothing during the three years in the 1950s he worked at the now bankrupt Union Rubber & Asbestos Co. (UNARCO) in Bloomington.

UNARCO, because it is insolvent, was not a defendant in the case.

Instead, the woman’s attorneys chose to sue two other companies with no connection to her injuries, Honeywell International and Pneumo Abex.

Neither company ever employed the woman’s husband, nor was either the cause of any of the asbestos that made her sick.

However, trial lawyers reached deep into their bag of tricks and accused UNARCO and the two other companies of conspiring to hide the harmful effects of asbestos exposure. The jury awarded the woman $2.7 million.

The 4th District Illinois Appellate Court threw out the case in July, ruling that the McLean County trial judge erred in even letting the woman’s case go to the jury.

In a rare 65-page opinion, the court said that there was “no evidence that either of the defendants actually entered into an agreement with any other corporation to falsely assert that asbestos was safe or to keep quiet about the dangers of asbestos.”

This is the 11th time Illinois appellate courts and the Illinois Supreme Court have told McLean County and other Central Illinois judges that they have gotten the law wrong with respect to these kinds of asbestos conspiracy cases.

In fact, Illinois’ appellate courts have not upheld any of the 15 McLean County conspiracy plaintiffs’ verdicts.

No other court system in the country permits these kinds of cases to go to trial, for the same reasons cited by Illinois’ appellate courts.

Yet, McLean County judges continue to waste taxpayer dollars and jurors’ time and continue to cost companies and their investors millions in legal fees and lost shareholder value.

The higher courts understand the game plaintiff’s attorneys are perpetrating, and they’ve made their views clear 11 times and counting.

Unfortunately, by the time these cases get to the upper courts, often the damage is already done. The cost to the companies defending themselves against these abusive lawsuits can run into the tens of millions of dollars.

The companies will in virtually all cases have to post appeal bonds, which are typically 150 percent of the verdict, to cover the verdict amount plus the costs of appeal. These appeals take years, tying up millions of dollars of capital.

Finally, verdicts have to be noted in a company’s public filings and affect share price.

For example, Owens-Illinois’ stock price fell 4.2 percent on the first trading day after a $90 million conspiracy theory verdict against the company in March.

There is also the cost to the community.

Twelve McLean County citizens had to put their lives on hold for five weeks to sit on the jury in the $2.7 million case. That was also five weeks that other McLean County cases were not being heard.

Why do local plaintiffs’ lawyers keep filing these cases even when the verdicts are thrown out? Because they know they can still make millions in legal fees.

Often, conspiracy defendants in these cases settle rather than pay the cost to defend themselves and risk a jackpot verdict.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers’ business model is to play the odds that even if a few cases are thrown out, all it takes is one multimillion dollar windfall settlement or win to more than make up for it.

In the case overturned by the 4th Circuit, for example, other named defendants had settled years earlier for more than $1.8 million, with more than a third of that money going to the lawyers in fees.

McLean County’s rogue courts have allowed these bogus no-causation conspiracy claims to make it a magnet for abusive asbestos lawsuits and to foster a legal environment hostile to those who create jobs.

Illinois’ appellate courts — indeed, the state Supreme Court — keep saying these cases aren’t legitimate.

It’s time for McLean County’s judges to pay attention and stop this travesty perpetuated by a relatively few plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The McLean County courts’ accommodation of these asbestos conspiracy cases has become a farce and even a comedian would find nothing funny about it.

This column first appeared in the Bloomington Pantagraph.