Media Center

Class-Action Lawsuits Set a Record

Brian Brueggemann
01/02/04
Belleville News-Democrat

EDWARDSVILLE

A record number of class-action lawsuits -- 106 -- were filed last year in Madison County, topping the previous high of 77 the previous year.

In 2002, more class actions were filed in Madison County per capita than any other county in the United States. That number for 2003 is again expected to be tops in the country.

The county has become a magnet for class actions, which are cases filed on behalf of a large group of people -- such as people who bought a certain product or service.

Ed Murnane, director of the Illinois Civil Justice League, hopes the county soon will lose the distinction of being a place sought out by plaintiffs lawyers because of its liberal jury awards.

"Hopefully this will be the last time Madison County sets a record," Murnane said. "Federal class action legislation is expected to be passed early next year (2004). That may, we hope, reduce the number of suits filed in Madison County."

The proposed legislation would make it harder to have class actions tried in state courts instead of federal courts. Plaintiff attorneys often favor state courts -- for example, courts in Mississippi are popular -- for filing class actions.

Murnane said he also hopes "the judges and lawyers realize that the litigation environment in Madison County, and to an extent St. Clair County, is not good for the area. It's driving business away, it's driving doctors away and it's reducing the quality of life for Madison and St. Clair counties and all of Southern Illinois, and we hope they get that message."

St. Clair County had two class actions filed in 2002. The total for 2003 was not available Wednesday, but clerks said there were fewer than 25 filed.

Many of the class actions in Madison County were filed by the Lakin Law Firm. Brad Lakin of that firm could not be reached for comment.

The Lakin Law Firm has filed several class actions against companies within certain industries. For example, several insurance companies are accused of unfairly capping the amount they pay for various medical services.

Other defendants in the 2003 class actions include Disney World, which is accused of calling people and making unsolicited promotional offers.

A $10.1 billion verdict was issued this year in a Madison County class action against cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, which was accused of bilking smokers by marketing its light brands of cigarettes as safer than full-flavored brands. That judgment is now being appealed.

Madison County Chief Judge Edward Ferguson said cases like that are bound to attract more class actions.

"It's like the welding rod cases. Now that they've won one of those, we may see more cases in that area," Ferguson said.

In October, a Madison County jury awarded $1 million to a Collinsville man who claimed he developed a form of Parkinson's disease from welding fumes. It marked the first time such a case has been successful against makers of welding rods.

Ferguson is keeping an eye on the number of class actions. He said the county's judges could be swamped if many of the cases reach the distribution stage. Once a case is over, a judge still has to oversee the distribution of a judgment to the class, which can include millions of people.

 
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