Cook, Madison, St. Clair counties rank among nation’s top ‘judicial hellholes’

Cook, Madison, St. Clair counties rank among nation’s top ‘judicial hellholes’

A trio of Illinois counties are known for being plaintiff friendly, especially for asbestos and no-injury biometric screening cases. COVID-19 liability is expected to fill future court dockets.

Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties rank No. 8 in the American Tort Reform Association’s annual report on “Judicial Hellholes,” which blames plaintiff-friendly courts and state laws for the designation.

“The Illinois General Assembly continues to look for innovative new ways to expand liability for businesses, increasing the financial burdens of doing business in the state,” the report stated Dec. 8. “At a time when business is reeling from the economic impact of COVID-19, the legislature should consider enacting reforms to ease the economic burden caused by abuses of the state’s civil justice system.”

Illinois’ excessive tort costs take nearly 100,000 jobs and almost $10 billion from the Illinois economy, as well as about $920 million from state and local government revenues, according to a study by The Perryman Group. Those costs amount to a “tort tax” of $762 per person in Illinois.

The association faults asbestos lawsuits. Madison County is No. 1 in the nation for filings, with nearly one-third of new cases, St. Clair County is No. 2 and Cook County was on track to be No. 6 this year.

Biometric screening lawsuits are also significant in the rankings, with plaintiffs winning money even if there are no injuries suffered. The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which covers fingerprinting or facial scans to unlock phones, in 2019 was broadly interpreted by the Illinois Supreme Court and fostered lawsuit abuses, the group stated.

“Illinois is ground zero for lawsuit filings where the person suing doesn’t actually claim they suffered any injury, what we call no-injury lawsuits,” said Tiger Joyce, association president. “Entrepreneurial trial lawyers saw an opening for business and immediately sought to cash in by targeting businesses, and courts allowed it to happen.”

State lawmakers were considering expanding the biometric law before COVID-19 interrupted the 101st General Assembly, and the issue is expected to come back with the new legislature in January. The association said that would be a mistake.

McDonald’s employees filed a 2,000-plus page lawsuit Nov. 10 in St. Clair County claiming the fast-food giant mishandled and toyed with their biometric data outside the U.S. in company software without written permission. In September the county saw another biometric suit filed by a former strip club employee, who said fingerprints were used to punch a timeclock and created privacy risks. Neither case listed any actual harm.

Nearly two-thirds of Illinoisans polled in April said local businesses should not be sued over personal data, according to the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. More than half said real harm should be proven for plaintiffs to collect damages.

The “Judicial Hellholes” rankings have previously been dismissed as biased and junk research by the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

“The report is nothing more than a public relations stunt bankrolled by insurance, tobacco and drug companies to attack the civil justice system and gain complete immunity for their negligent behavior,” said the group’s former president, Todd Smith.

The three Illinois counties dropped one spot in the rankings from last year, which came as no surprise to Illinois Civil Justice League President John Pastuovic. He said the three are the state’s most litigious.

He also said COVID-19 is the new frontier for lawsuit abuse.

“It has already become apparent that some personal injury lawyers view individuals exposed to COVID-19 as a large new pool of plaintiffs, and view health care providers and businesses that aid in the response effort or provide essential services as defendants on which to cast blame,” he said. “The first lawsuits targeting health care providers, employers, retailers and other businesses for COVID-related injuries have been filed. Many more are to come.”

In April, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order to protect health care facilities and workers from liability related to COVID-19, but it expired in June and there is a call for new protections. Pastuovic said the fear is that once the crisis is past, defense attorneys and judges will work to weaken the protections.

His group called on the Illinois General Assembly to back Pritzker with new laws. The April poll found 83.6% of Illinoisans thought health care workers should not face lawsuits related to their COVID-19 efforts, and 77% said manufacturers fighting COVID-19 should not face lawsuits for product flaws.

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