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foster greater economic choice and
Downstate county is a ‘Plaintiff's Paradise’
By Christi Parsons
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — For decades the local courts in this blue-collar county have been known as "Plaintiff's Paradise," thanks to a legal system that is uncommonly friendly to injured parties seeking damages from big business.
But Madison County's reputation within a legal subculture is getting more widespread attention, as academics and conservative analysts work to document its status as a national mecca for class-action lawsuits—and to use it as an argument for legal reform.
Rural Madison County, population 259,000, ranks among the top counties nationwide in the estimated number of class actions filed every year—third behind Los Angeles County and Cook County, in one unscientific survey—according to a study published last year in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
A report due Monday by the same authors and commissioned by a conservative think tank suggests the exponential growth in filings between 1998 and 2000 has continued. Class actions are being filed in Madison County at a per capita rate that eclipses the national average, according to the report's preliminary findings to be released at a national conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
Lawyers and judges here praise their court system as being fair-minded, one in which people don't have to be rich and powerful to get a decent hearing. Madison County is one place where the little guy has a fighting chance against the corporate monolith, they say.
Nevertheless, the court system situated across the Mississippi River from St. Louis is emerging as Exhibit A in the argument against so-called "magnet courts," attractive to lawyers representing thousands—and sometimes millions—of consumers, injured workers and other plaintiffs.
"If you look at the dockets, you'll see that it doesn't look to be a local county court," said John Beisner, a lawyer who defends companies against class actions and one of the authors of the report. "Most of the defendants are from out of state. It is rather strange that the courts in this county would deal with claims of people from all 50 states."
Usually civil suits are filed where the accident or alleged misdeed occurred. But class actions can be brought just about any place the allegedly faulty product or service is available—or where at least one plaintiff resides.
Enter Madison County.
In the mid-1900s, lawyers for injured rail workers liked to bring their cases to Madison and its environs, where the the tracks through these blue-collar communities and in neighboring St. Clair County established the requisite legal link.
"It's a working-man and working-woman kind of area," said former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a southern Illinois Democrat who lives nearby and pays attention to politics of the local bench. "The steel industry has gone down a great deal, but you still have the memory of the steel mills there. The attitudes of family members and former workers is still very much a part of the culture of the area."
That culture produces a jury pool that is naturally sympathetic to complaints of injured workers and others wronged by big businesses, he said.
Lawyers specializing in that kind of work have opened law offices here. Some of those lawyers have gone on to join the bench, often with the financial backing of like-minded colleagues.
"We've got judges who come from this community, and they're what they were born and bred to be," said Rex Carr, one of the most prolific trial lawyers in the area. "They reflect the community they come from. Any community that doesn't select a judge that reflects it is a ... fool."
A friendly bench is important for any plaintiff but especially for those in a class action, in which the judge's decision to "certify" the class and let the lawsuit proceed often inspires defendants to settle.
According to the first analysis by Beisner and colleague Jessica Davidson Miller, for example, the number of class-action filings in the county increased dramatically to 39 in 2000 from two in 1998. Class-action filings in the county increased to 43 in 2001, the new study shows. At the current rate, there would be 78 class-action suits in 2002.
The Manhattan Institute, the think tank that commissioned the study, hopes the case study of Madison County will help illustrate the need for change in the system. Judges in a small, rural county with a fraction of 1 percent of the nation's population shouldn't be setting policy for all 50 states, critics of the system contend.
When a county judge orders automobile insurance companies to pay more for totaled vehicles, for example, those changes affect company policy nationwide. Beisner and Miller suggest Congress should change federal law to allow more interstate class actions in federal court, where judges are less prone to local bias.
But others argue that it's good to have such cases heard by judges who are accountable at a grass-roots level.
Nationwide, courts are not sympathetic enough, Carr contends.
"They're too conservative by nature. They like doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen," he said. "They don't like teachers, ditch diggers, steelworkers. They go to their cocktail parties and hear people making fun of the working guy. That's the way they are. The majority of the courts throughout the country have been in favor of the power structure."
Not so in Madison County. The friendliness of the bench is hard to quantify based on court records, because most of the class actions are still pending or were settled privately out-of-court.
But there have been generous awards for attorneys' fees in the millions of dollars recently. And neither local trial lawyers nor judges deny the largely Democratic bench takes consumer complaints seriously.
Playthings and poultry
As a result the county ends up hosting big cases, like a suit against Mattel for allegedly selling too many limited-edition Barbies and one against Tyson Foods for allegedly water-logging chickens to increase their weight. Neither Mattel nor Tyson is located in the county, but they do sell dolls and poultry here.
Lawyers looking for possible plaintiffs regularly run ads in the local papers seeking those who have paid for a particular product or service—and who live anywhere in Madison County.
Foster Frederick didn't even call one of the 800 numbers listed in the newspaper. He was at home watching TV one afternoon when a lawyer came from the city to see him.
"He said I'd been cheated," said Frederick, a retired Granite City steelworker. "I didn't even know it until he told me."
Now Frederick is among the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a lottery company that, according to the complaint, has cheated elderly ticket buyers all over the country. The 2-year-old case is still pending, court records show, but Frederick didn't know that.
"I haven't heard a word since that lawyer came over," he said.
©2002 Chicago Tribune
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