EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - Madison County, Ill., saw yet another record-breaking year for new asbestos cases in 2013.
The Circuit Clerk's office reports that 1,678 new asbestos cases were filed last year, eclipsing the previous record in 2012 by more than 100.
A New York plaintiffs' firm that opened in Edwardsville a few years ago - Napoli, Bern, Ripka & Shkolnik - filed the most at 525-plus, eclipsing hometown asbestos players Simmons of Alton and Gori & Julian of Edwardsville.
Attorney Brian Huelsmann, partner at HeplerBroom in Edwardsville, commented on the court's caseload doubling in the last four years and tripling since 2004.
"That is, to me, a very significant increase in the amount of asbestos cases," he said.
The numbers rose steadily from 2006 until 2011, increasing roughly 100 cases per year with a slight drop in 2010. However, approaching 2012, Madison County jumped more than 600 cases from the previous year.
In years past, records show there were 325 cases filed in 2006; 455 cases in 2007; 659 cases in 2008; 814 in 2009; 752 in 2010; 953 in 2011 and 1,563 in 2012.
Even without this new record, Madison County is the largest asbestos docket in the country and was dubbed the epicenter of asbestos litigation by the American Tort Reform Association in its 2013 "Judicial Hellholes" report.
It appears the numbers could continue to grow as long as first-time trial settings continue to increase. Huelsmann said 674 first-time trial settings were set aside in 2013. There are 822 prepared for 2014.
Fast forward a year, and cases are already being set for 2015, with more than 340 trial settings planned so far.
Those numbers, he said, don't include the numerous cases that have been continued from previous years.
Figures available this year show there were 117 new cases filed in January - a significant jump compared to 90 cases filed in January 2013 and 77 cases in January 2012.
"If you do the math, Madison County is already set to have over 1,400 for 2014," Huelsmann said. "It doesn't look like it's slowing down."
Attorney Raymond Fournie of Armstrong Teasedale in St. Louis attributes the increase in cases to docket changes and more lung cancer cases.
"Since the docketing system changed, it opened it up for more lawsuits to be filed, and as a result, people were filing them," Fournie said. "We've seen an increase in filing of lung cancers, which we haven't seen before."
Fournie explained that Illinois law requires that plaintiffs over 70 years old have a right to an expedited trial docket, increasing the number of possible trial cases each week.
Fournie said it will take time to control the docket that Madison County Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs "inherited." But he added that Stobbs is doing his best to come up with a method that is fair to all parties.
"He, I think, is trying to get his arms around it and deal with it in the most equitable way" while still following Constitutional mandates, Fournie said.
Huelsmann said steps towards a more organized docket have been taken to alleviate the problems since Stobbs took over the asbestos docket on Oct. 28.
"He is requiring plaintiffs to prioritize the cases they would want coming up on the next trial docket," Huelsmann said.
In other words, he said Stobbs is asking plaintiffs firms to focus on their top five cases for each trial docket, so that defense firms know what to prepare for.
This new approach could be game-changing, he said, because in the past a firm could bring 20 or more possible trial cases to each docket, resulting in great expense and "a logistical nightmare" for defense firms as they try to prepare for each.
He added that before prioritizing was mandated, all cases presented as possible trial cases were a threat.
"Trying to get the plaintiffs to prioritize their cases, you know," Huelsmann said, "I think that's a step in the right direction."
Since beginning his assignment over the largest asbestos docket in the country, Stobbs has presided over two asbestos trials in which juries entered verdicts in favor of defendants Georgia Pacific and Crane Co.
Georgia Pacific won its case in November and Crane Co. won its case just last month.
Stobbs is Madison County's fourth asbestos judge in three years, taking the reins from Associate Judge Clarence Harrison in October.
When Harrison was presiding over the docket, he eliminated the advance trial setting practice in March 2012. However, the ruling may have opened the door for more lawyers, and potentially more suits, to make their way into the local system.
"Which meant that it was a race to the courthouse," Fournie said.
Plaintiffs firms responded to the change by getting their cases filed and obtaining a docket setting as quickly as possible, he added.
"We're seeing more plaintiffs firms," Fournie said. "And if there are more plaintiffs firms, there are going to be more filings."
In fact, in 2013, there were roughly 12 plaintiffs firms filing asbestos lawsuits in Madison County. The numbers show:
-Napoli, Bern, Ripka & Shkolnik LLP filed more than 525 cases;
-Simmons Law Firm filed more than 300 cases;
-Gori, Julian & Associates filed about 275;
-Maune, Raichle, Hartley, French & Mudd LLC filed about 140 cases;
-Shrader & Associates filed 90 cases; and
-A group of about six law firms filed more than 25 cases
However, Fournie points out that these new plaintiffs firms aren't entirely uncommon as experienced and ambitious lawyers "splinter" off from big firms to make it on their own.
"The pool seems to expand as time goes on," he said.
The appeal for plaintiffs from across the country filing asbestos claims in Madison County is due to its history of reserving large numbers of trial slots.
Heulsmann said new firms are also filing cases here because the state has not yet enacted legislation that would prevent out-of-state plaintiffs with no connection to Illinois from filing their cases here.
It is still uncertain how many of the 1,678 asbestos cases filed in Madison County in 2013 were on behalf of out-of-state residents, but the trend in previous years shows that roughly nine of the 10 cases are not on behalf of Illinoisans.
Fournie said the most important thing is whether the jurisdiction is improper for the defendant, adding that anyone has the right to file a lawsuit anywhere.
Last year's new filings showed a continuing trend of lung cancer over mesothelioma cases.
Fournie explained that there are more than 200,000 lung cancers diagnosed every year across the country.
On a national level, as mesothelioma diagnoses decrease, lawyers are filling the spaces left by decreasing mesothelioma cases with lung cancer cases. However, it appears mesothelioma cases have remained fairly consistent in Madison County.
Huelsmann said his firm's record of asbestos filings show 1,674 suits, four less than the figures provided by the Madison County Circuit Clerk's office.
Of those 1,674 cases, he confirmed that at least 650 of the new cases in 2013 were lung cancer cases that his firm is handling.
Traditionally, asbestos lawsuits were mesothelioma cases, but as a result of advertisements, a new lung cancer trend has "significantly increased this docket," Huelsmann said.
He added that if it wasn't for lung cancer cases, Madison County would probably be seeing docket numbers near the 2009 and 2010 new case numbers.
Huge numbers in Madison County put a burden on the courts and tax payers, Fournie said, but the cases are going to be filed somewhere.
"It's not like if a case isn't filed in Madison County, it's not going to be filed anywhere," he said.
The method in place is a natural way of handling these asbestos cases as long as they are litigated in an orderly fashion, Fournie said. However, they will become a problem if there are more trials, adding that trials are to be a last resort when parties are unable to come to an agreement on their own.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at email@example.com