September 15, 2014

Denial Can’t Mask Illinois’ Poor Lawsuit Climate

By Lisa A. Rickard

Denial is one of the oldest tricks around. When confronted with an uncomfortable situation, one common human instinct is to deny there’s a problem.

Recent commentary (available here and here) by Chicago plaintiffs’ lawyer John Cooney proves this point. As the president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and one of the state’s leading personal injury lawyers, he is troubled by calls for legal reform in Illinois. His response? Denying that Illinois has a lawsuit abuse problem.

Unfortunately, all of Cooney’s denials can’t change the fact that Illinois has one of the worst lawsuit climates in the nation. The state attracts litigation from around the country, while repelling businesses and the much-needed jobs they create.

In fact, businesses are the best people to ask about which states have good and bad litigation environments. In a survey of in-house business counsel commissioned by my organization, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), Illinois’s legal climate ranked 46th in the nation-lowest in the Midwest and ahead of only four other states nationally.

In addition, this ranking rated Cook County as the single worst jurisdiction in the country, while Madison County was ranked sixth worst. It should be no surprise that these counties ranked so poorly as they represent classic examples of “jackpot” jurisdictions.

Cook County has become a national hub for personal injury and product liability cases. Meanwhile, Madison County has become the nation’s top jurisdiction for asbestos personal injury lawsuits. With .09 percent of the nation’s population, Madison County accounts for more than 25 percent of the nation’s asbestos lawsuits.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers know full well that these jurisdictions slant the playing field against defendants, whether by denying them time to properly prepare for trial, overwhelming them with multiple trials in the same time period, or preventing the introduction of relevant evidence in court.

To take advantage, plaintiffs’ lawyers import plaintiffs from all over the country. Past evidence suggests that at least 90 percent of the more than 1,600 asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County last year feature plaintiffs who never lived or worked in the county.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading the lawsuit climate deniers who site misleading or incomplete statistics, such as the decline in civil lawsuit filings since 2007. This time period is convenient in that it reflects the downturn of the economy during the recession, rather than the overall lawsuit trend. They also point to the large number of Fortune 500 companies based in Illinois. But many of those companies have publicly decried Illinois’s business climate, and some have even moved operations elsewhere.

In fact, 70 percent of corporate counsel from the ILR survey said that a state’s legal climate matters for important business decisions, like deciding where to locate and expand. By having one of the nation’s worst legal climates, Illinois is discouraging businesses from coming to the state and contributing to a rate of job growth that is 42nd nationally since the end of the recession.

The good news is that Illinois can do better. By passing commonsense reforms, like requiring lawsuits to be brought in the jurisdiction where the alleged infraction occurred, the state can make real strides in improving its legal climate. But first, elected officials need to reject denialism and accept that the problem exists.

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