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.
Jurors disagreed with Frank Schwaller’s claims that the drug-making giant’s painkiller Vioxx caused his wife’s collapse and sudden death in 2003, instead ruling Tuesday that Patty Schwaller’s demise more likely resulted from the 52-year-old Granite City woman’s own poor health, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
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 ‘”atershed” 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.
In March 2003, a Madison County judge issued a $10.1 billion verdict favoring smokers who sued Philip Morris USA in a class-action lawsuit involving “light” cigarettes. The Illinois Supreme Court later threw out that ruling, and the nation’s high court last November let that decision stand.
President Bush visited here in January 2005 as a backdrop to pressure Congress to pass legislation limiting jury awards for medical malpractice. And in August 2005, Gov. Rod Blagojevich came to Madison County to sign a law seeking to hold down medical malpractice costs for doctors by limiting the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against hospitals and physicians.
But Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, who oversaw the Vioxx trial, said the county does not deserve the label given by detractors, including the American Tort Reform Association, as a “judicial hellhole.”
The judge dismissed the moniker, also applied to neighboring St. Clair County, as the “childish and unfair” creation of a group with a political agenda.
“I unequivocally reject it,” he said. “I certainly understand that things have occurred in Madison County that have brought these people down on us. (But) to me, a judicial hellhole is a place where no one could get any justice; that’s not the case.”
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.
“I don’t think any of the judges who practice here like to hear that (hellhole) term over and over,” Callis said. “We believed as a group there were some positive steps we would take to abrogate that label, and in many instances I believe we have.”
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.”
“We have seen clear improvements in Madison County by some of the trial judges, and we commend that,” Victor Schwartz, the group’s general counsel, said Wednesday. In the Vioxx case, “there was a fair trial in an area where a few years ago one could not get a fair trial.”
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.”