WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Madison and St. Clair counties of southern Illinois have been ranked fifth among the American Tort Reform Foundation's "Judicial Hellholes" in an annual report released on Thursday.

In recent years, the local courts have escaped the dire designation due to legal reforms in Madison County and perceived improvements by the national legal reform group.

"Though Metro East counties Madison and St. Clair have come a long way since hitting rock bottom last decade," American Tort Reform Association president Tiger Joyce said, "there are signs of a relapse as asbestos dockets expand with the cases of out-of-state plaintiffs, class-action certifications appear easier to come by and, more generally, recent reform efforts seem to have stalled."

The Madison County Record was first to report earlier this week that Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder had been abruptly removed as the court's asbestos judge. Her campaign committee had accepted $30,000 in contributions from lawyers at the county's top asbestos firms just days after she ruled favorably toward those firms.

Crowder, who was reassigned from the nation's busiest state court asbestos docket on Monday, has denied there was any relationship between her Dec. 1 ruling that gave the Simmons firm, Goldenberg firm and Gori & Julian the vast majority of asbestos trial settings for 2013, and $10,000 in campaign contributions received from lawyers at each of those firms on Dec. 5-6. She also said she would be returning the the donations.

Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch executive director Travis Akin said the ranking is not the Christmas present local residents were hoping to receive.

"By swamping our courts with cases that have little to nothing to do with Madison or St. Clair counties and returning the Metro-East to judicial hellhole status, personal injury lawyers have put a lump of coal in every Metro-East resident's stockings this holiday season," Akin said.

He also said that voters will have a chance to vote for or against the retention of local circuit judges in 2012.

In Madison County, four circuit judges face retention votes next year, including Crowder.

"With this news that the Metro-East is once again ranked as one of the country's worst judicial Hellholes, voters should take their responsibility to evaluate and render verdicts on judges and judicial candidates even more seriously than usual," Akin said.

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association rebuked ATRF's report.

The organization's president, Jerry Latherow, issued a prepared statement the day before the report was to be released to the general public.

"This recycled annual 'report' has been widely discredited and ridiculed in past years," Latherow said. "It has been shown, time and time again, to be biased, junk 'research' that only proves tort reform is simply a scheme by powerful corporations to avoid accountability in the courtroom and stack the deck against everyday Americans."

He called the Hellhole report "a public relations stunt designed to further their political and legislative strategies to prevent individual citizens from exercising their rights."

ATRF takes aim at another downstate jurisdiction. McLean County was ranked eighth.

"McLean County moves up from the Watch List to full-blown Hellholes status this year, thanks to its unique practice of allowing lawsuits that seek multimillion-dollar compensation for asbestos-related injuries from deep-pocket defendants with a novel theory of 'civil conspiracy,'" Joyce said.

All is not hopeless in the Land of Lincoln, according to ATRF.

The Illinois Supreme Court rated a "Points of Light" citation for having overturned a $43 million Madison County verdict in Jablonski v. Ford. The underlying case had established "a new and costly duty for manufacturers to warn consumers of remote risks of injury long after their purchase of the product," the report said.

As ATRF sees it, Madison and St. Clair Counties have made progress since having been rated the nation's top judicial hellholes, but the group fears there may be a decline in the making. One sign is the aforementioned Illinois Supreme Court reversal of the Madison County ruling.

According to ATRF, "after a one-sided trial that favored the plaintiff" the Madison County court sought to impose a "new liability on manufacturers." Another cause for alarm is that some mid-level appellate courts dismissed two class actions certified by Madison County judges. Finally, a billion dollar tobacco lawsuit award may go back to Madison County.

Likewise, Madison County is once again becoming a focal point for asbestos lawsuits. According to ATRF, only about 10 percent of asbestos claims have any connection to the area. St. Clair County is also becoming an attractive venue for mesothelioma claims. It also serves as an attractive place to sue pharmaceutical companies.

The reason McLean County advanced to Judicial Hellhole status from its previous Watch List designation is its policy of permitting litigation for asbestos-related injuries despite the fact "the plaintiff did not come in contact with the named defendant's products."

Such cases are known as civil conspiracy lawsuits. ATRA asserts that such lawsuits simply target affluent companies by alleging they somehow concealed the dangers of asbestos from the public decades ago. One such McLean County lawsuit saw the plaintiff awarded $90 million.

Cook County, which had been called a "perennial Hellhole" in recent years," dropped to the "Watch List" this year.

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