Monday, January 08, 2007

What the Illinois Legislature Needs to Do on Civil Justice Reform

Illinois legislators got an early start on 2007 yesterday when they convened in Springfield to deal with leftovers from 2006, most notably the contentious issue of electricity rate hikes. Sunday, the House of Representatives voted to freeze electric rates. It is doubtful if the Senate will go along.

On Wednesday, the business of the new General Assembly begins and, although the schedule is light until February, in part because of the renovation of the State Capitol, there is a lot to do.

Unfortunately, the new General Assembly does not appear to be carrying a civil justice reform banner. The Democratic sweep of state-wide offices in Illinois was accompanied by Democratic gains in the General Assembly and Democrats have not been civil justice reform advocates in Illinois.

Except when the stakes are high, as they were in 2005 when Illinois passed medical malpractice reform.

They are equally as high in 2007. The challenge for reform advocates is to convince legislators that just as a doctor/hospital/access to health care crisis was serious and politically threatening in 2005, the threat to job growth, economic development and erasing Illinois' image as a hostile judicial environment are politically important this year.

Here are a few -- not all --of the significant civil justice reforms that the General Assembly will be asked to address in 2007.

COMMON SENSE VENUE FOR LAWSUITS: Lawsuits should be filed in the appropriate judicial venue. For years, Illinois has been a "magnet" lawsuit state and some counties, particularly Madison, St. Clair and Cook have been viewed as plaintiff friendly. It is not unreasonable -- nor does it deny plaintiffs access to justice -- to require that lawsuits be filed in court houses that make sense. To their credit, Madison County judges are implementing changes to accomplish that.

CONSUMER PROTECTION ACT REFORM: Illinois is one of many states that needs to put a stop to unsound litigation based on alleged consumer protection act violations that do not involve an injury, loss or any actual damages. The notorious Philip Morris case in Madison County was one such case -- thrown out in part because there were no damages or losses.

As a report by the Manhattan Institute and American Tort Reform Association indicated last year:

"There's nothing rational about letting shameless lawyers shake down nail salon owners with inflated claims of unsanitary conditions when the same bottle of nail polish was used for multiple customers, and there's nothing rational about a multimillion-dollar class action filed against the maker of Listerine for making assertions about its effectiveness as compared to flossing when not a single plaintiff suffered a demonstrable injury. Yet these and thousands of economy-sapping cases like them could become routine if state legislatures and courts don't act decisively to keep such litigation from becoming the next big thing."
EXPERT WITNESS/EXPERT EVIDENCE: The asbestos/silicosis lawsuit bonanza has underscored the importance of eliminating "junk science" and bogus and crooked expert witnesses from court rooms. Because Illinois is one of the major litigation centers in the U.S., our exposure to fraud is greater than most other states.

FULL AND FAIR NON-ECONOMIC DAMAGE REFORM: Illinois legislators realized in 2005 that limits on non-economic damages made sense in medical liability cases. The same limits should be applied in all personal injury claims. No limits should be established on economic or actual losses but "pain and suffering" awards should be limited. In addition, defendants' wealth or degree of wrong-doing should not be a factor in determining non-economic damages.

JURY SERVICE REFORM: For several years, ICJL has been working to improve the jury system in Illinois by making it less burdensome for qualified jurors to serve and by eliminating excessive demands on employers of prospective jurors.

The new General Assembly is going to flex its muscles and the plaintiffs' bar already has made it clear that it views its mission as a "crusade" to block reform.

In her most recent commentary, the president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association made it clear:
"In addition to deflecting half-truths and advocating for our clients, the trial lawyers in our Association must remain committed to fighting back legislative proposals that deny access to the civil justice system. I also intend to make sure ITLA is pro-active in its efforts to improve the quality of life for victims and those who survive the loss of a loved one."
Our task in 2007 also is to strive to improve the quality of life for our loved ones in Illinois by improving the job market, by improving access to health care, by reducing needless time and costs of misguided litigation.

Many of our legislators are going to need some educating.

Cross-posted by Ed Murnane at Illinois Justice Blog.

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2 comments:

fedup dem,  9:28 AM  

Hey Ed, why don't you see if you can outbid that Kuwaiti guy for the noose used to hang Saddam Hussein. Then istead of suing these SOB doctors and businessmen in Cook, Madison and St. Clair Counties, they can dance in the air like Saddam did. Do you think they would prefer that?

Anonymous,  10:06 AM  

Insurers deny - delay - defraud - defend against legitimate claims brought by honest reasonable people seeking only that to which they are reasonably entitled. This conduct is carried on to the point where consumers are forced to retain legal counsel and seek justice in court. Then, when a jury of reasonable people, after a full hearing of the facts, brings back a judgement against the insurer their Spin Doctors blame the legal system for their already excessive premiums and threaten to raise premiums even higher unless the Consumers’ right of access to justice is restricted.

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