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June 17, 2011

Move over, Madison County: More legal funny business in Illinois

Illinois is known for a few things that make it unique among all states: the tallest tower in America; Chicago-style deep-dish pizza; Abraham Lincoln.

But it also has another claim to fame: the state known for handing out multimillion dollar jackpot-justice verdicts. This distinction is reasserting itself in McLean County with frivolous “no-causation” conspiracy claims. It works like this: trial lawyers target solvent businesses in asbestos lawsuits even if they have no connection to their clients. They score big fees, settlements and damages by claiming that one or more companies conspired from the 1930s to the 1970s to suppress health and safety information concerning asbestos.

This is a setback for Illinois. The state struggled for years to shed a reputation as a plaintiff’s lawyer paradise. Its infamy was born a decade ago when Madison and St. Clair counties created a cottage industry for out-of-state class-action lawsuits that would have been rejected by almost every other court in the country.

Now, McLean County has become a hot spot for a similar abuse of justice. This threatens all companies because it demonstrates a company doesn’t have to cause any injury to be held liable — and face a bill in the tens of millions of dollars.

Plaintiffs claim they were injured when they were exposed to asbestos at the former Union Asbestos and Rubber Co. in Bloomington, Ill. UNARCO is bankrupt and is, therefore, never named as a defendant. So the plaintiffs sue other unrelated but financially viable companies — Owens-Illinois, Honeywell International and Pneumo Abex — claiming a conspiracy.

The Illinois Supreme Court has rejected the conspiracy claim theory. Supreme Courts in California and Texas and federal courts in Maryland have also ruled that you can’t sue a company for conspiracy if there is no relationship between the plaintiff and the company.

Yet the suits keep coming in McLean County. In March, the McLean County Circuit Court awarded one of the largest conspiracy claim asbestos verdicts ever — nearly $90 million — to a plaintiff whose only relationship was with the bankrupt UNARCO. He had no relationship at all with the three financially viable companies — Owens-Illinois, Honeywell and Pneumo Abex.

In April, McLean County Circuit Judge Paul Lawrence barred Honeywell from even defending itself against a plaintiff who sued the company for the alleged wrongful death of her husband. Lawrence halted the trial — before the defense could open its mouth — and directed a verdict for the plaintiff. The jury awarded $4.3 million.

Lawrence applied the conspiracy theory — even though neither the plaintiff nor her husband were ever employees, customers, visitors or in any way connected to Honeywell.

It’s akin to General Motors in 2011 being held liable for a defective part on a Ford Model T that injured someone in the 1920s … simply because both companies make cars.

And, unfortunately, even if the verdict is overturned on appeal, the damage has already been done. The costs of litigating these cases and the real risk of a huge verdict force many defendants to settle.

Abraham Lincoln, who toiled as a young circuit lawyer in the same McLean County court, said once: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time.”

But that has fallen on deaf ears in McLean County courts. They are serving as a home for outrageous, abusive lawsuits that hurt businesses trying to create jobs in this difficult economy. That makes the people of Illinois the real losers. This is not justice. It’s a disgrace.

This column first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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