Illinois’ national marketing campaign touts the state as the “Land of Lincoln”, but over the past few decades, it has garnered a well-worn reputation as the “Land of Lawsuits.”
The state’s lawsuit climate has consistently ranked among the bottom ten states in ILR’s Lawsuit Climate: Ranking the States survey, falling to an all-time low 48th in 2015. Two big reasons for the state’s poor legal reputation are the courts in Cook and Madison counties, which are ranked among the list of national cities having the least fair and reasonable litigation environment.
Fighting the good fight to help fix Illinois’ abusive lawsuit climate is the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL), which has been a valued partner in the legal reform effort for more than 20 years. Longtime Illinois political and government affairs professional John Pastuovic took the ICJL reins last year.
We caught up with John to discuss ICJL’s work to bring common sense, meaningful legal reforms to Illinois.
ICJL has been fighting for lawsuit reform in Illinois for more than two decades in a mostly hostile legal and legislative climate. Can you tell us a bit about your history and successes?
ICJL was formed in February 1993 to fight for a civil justice system that is fair to all Illinoisians. We have helped foster reform success in both the State legislature and the Illinois courts, fighting for a comprehensive civil justice reform law in 1995, only to see the Illinois Supreme Court narrowly overturn the law in 1997. In response to abuse of the [Madison and St. Clair County] court systems, the Illinois Civil Justice League has fought out-of-control filings of class action suits and helped secure the passage of a comprehensive medical liability reform law in 2005.
Unfortunately, that law was also struck down by the Supreme Court in 2007. However, attention brought by reformers in these efforts have helped bring civil justice reform into the forefront of Illinois policymaking. .
Illinois took a step forward in 2014 with the election of pro-legal reform Governor Bruce Rauner. What are some of his priorities and how is ICJL working with him to make them a reality?
Governor Rauner has been a strong proponent for civil justice reform, and has incorporated it into his Turnaround Agenda for Illinois. He understands the impact of the one-sided changes that Illinois’ plaintiffs’ attorneys have added into the Illinois statutes – meaning that they continue to cost Illinois businesses and citizens opportunities and employment. He supports civil justice reforms because they can help stimulate and improve the Illinois economy. Governor Rauner understands that bringing more jobs and opportunity to Illinois’ economy can solve many of the budgetary problems plaguing the state.
After he was elected, he invited me to serve on his transition team. His administration has been in close contact with ICJL on all things legal reform since that time. We all witnessed the governor’s commitment to civil justice reform when he stood with us at the Chicago announcement of ILR’s 2015 Lawsuit Climate survey.
We continue to work with the governor for passage of venue reform and for changes in the joint and several liability standards to bring greater fairness to the Illinois courts. I think when you look at the large number of out-of-county and out-of-state asbestos lawsuits flowing into Madison County, you realize how important venue reform would be to fixing our state’s legal climate.
Speaking of Madison County, can you speak more about the out-of-state asbestos litigation flowing into those courts?
The amount of out-of-state asbestos case filings is staggering. In Madison County, loose venue rulings have allowed dozens of defendant companies to be sued by an out-of-state plaintiff when attorneys are able to only show a loose business connection by one defendant company doing business in Madison County. Often, that defendant never makes it to a final list of defendants prior to trial, and more than 99 percent of cases never go to trial, despite an arcane case management system that has historically been stacked in favor of local plaintiffs’ firms. Obviously, venue reform is key to returning common sense to this system.
Why do you think Madison County courts are so abusive?
Since at least the early 2000s, Madison County has had a reputation for being plaintiff-friendly. Many people think the convergence of rail and river connections in the region made Madison County a national clearinghouse for personal injury cases.
In 1986, a local attorney introduced Madison County to the concept of asbestos litigation, and what followed was an explosion of regional litigation of cases from the Midwest. However, those cases were minor compared to the investment made the combination of local and national plaintiffs’ firms into class action cases starting in the late-1990s.
By 2002 and 2003, there were more class action cases filed in Madison County per capita than any other jurisdiction in history. Meanwhile, the asbestos docket saw one of the largest asbestos verdicts in US history. During this period, national asbestos firms started teaming with a new generation of plaintiffs’ attorneys to bring what is now estimated at one-third to one-half of all the asbestos litigation in America. Much of the class action litigation was reformed through changes brought by the passage of the federal Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) in 2005 and through changes made by the local judiciary in 2006.
ICJL traditionally has had a robust research program. Can you tell us about any upcoming studies or reports you have in the pipeline?
Absolutely. We are currently working on the third addition of Litigation Imbalance, which is ICJL-initiated research into major civil case filings for more than four decades in Illinois. The findings of our research have exposed much of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ abuse of the Illinois court system, documenting the funneling of Illinois’ civil litigation into three major venues – Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties – and demonstrating the continued abuse of the Madison County civil docket, which has become a national magnet asbestos docket.
Additionally, Madison County lawsuit filings averaged 8.255 per thousand persons – double the rate of Cook County, triple the rate of St. Clair County, and six and a half times the rate of the other 99 counties in Illinois. These are concrete, fact-based statistics that all point to the need for venue reform in our state.
What do you think it’s going to take to finally push comprehensive legal reform over the goal line in Illinois?
It is no secret that Illinois’ finances are a disaster. Unfortunately, businesses cannot and will not invest in Illinois until the state’s established, deep-rooted and documented lawsuit climate problems are addressed once and for all.
That’s why Illinois’ best opportunity for becoming competitive again is to support and implement Governor Rauner’s civil justice reform agenda. By implementing venue reform and joint and several liability reform, we can begin making Illinois competitive again and begin creating jobs to ensure our rightful place at the top, rather than at the bottom, of future ILR lawsuit climate survey results.