Monday, April 2, 2007

Madison County's Reputation After Vioxx Verdict

Whatever you want to call it -- plaintiff-friendly venue, renegade jurisdiction, or judicial hellhole -- it takes time for a forum's reputation to change.  Madison County, arguably the most notorious plaintiff-friendly and class-action-friendly jurisdiction of the past decade, has changed in recent years.  But will the recent defense verdict in a Vioxx case help the county finally shed its reputation?  This AP story in Insurance Journal -- Ill. Vioxx Verdict Helps Madison County Shed Pro-plaintiff Reputation -- suggests that this verdict is a big step, but that these things take time:

Judicial watchdog Ed Murnane long has been critical of Madison County's reputation as a plaintiff's paradise in big-money lawsuits, and he knew changing that would take baby steps.  So it was little wonder that the chief of the Illinois Civil Justice League, which sides with business and the insurance industry in fighting for caps on damages and other lawsuit reforms, was encouraged when a jury rejected a widower's request for tens of millions of dollars in damages against Merck & Co. in the death of his wife. ...

Murnane acknowledged Wednesday that jurors might have sided with Merck because Frank Schwaller's case wasn't persuasive enough _ not to prove this county just east of St. Louis didn't deserve being stigmatized by some as a "judicial hellhole.''  Even so, Murnane believes the verdict may be a "watershed"' for Madison County and the nation's perception of it.  "This is just a good, positive sign. There is no doubt,'' he said. While "it certainly doesn't erase all of the concern and distrust people have had,'' the county needs to sustain the momentum and "the image of fairness.''

For years, Madison County has been known as a place where lawyers from across the country file cases hoping for big payouts involving everything from asbestos exposure to medical malpractice. ...

Under the watch of Ann Callis, Madison County's chief judge since last May, reforms cheered by Murnane and others are under way.  Murnane said recent local rules adopted by Madison County judges that make it tougher for plaintiffs, particularly from out-of-state, to file cases here and moving some cases to arbitrators have weeded out frivolous lawsuits and helped speed cases along. ...

Numbers show improvement. Major civil cases _ those seeking at least $50,000 _ last year totaled 1,145, down from 1,297 in 2005, 1,439 in 2004 and 2,102 in 2003. Asbestos lawsuits dropped to 325 last year, nearly one-third of the 953 such cases in 2003. There were three class-action filings in 2006; just three years before that, there were 106.

Even the American Tort Reform Association has taken notice.  In announcing its yearly "judicial hellholes'' ranking, the group in December put Madison County fifth, improved from fourth the previous year after two years atop the list. The association credited the county with "extraordinary changes'' in the past two years that significantly improved fairness, warranting the county's move from "from the worst-of-the-worst to purgatory.''  ...

But shedding the hellhole image doesn't appear imminent.  "Such a reputation does not fade fast,'' the group's Web site reads, "and civil defendants still shiver at the prospect of facing a lawsuit in Madison County.''

HME

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