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MCCALEB: Lawsuit abuse in Illinois gets lost amid state's other many problems

Dan McCaleb
Dan McCaleb

If you build a judicial hellhole, they will come. That's how Travis Akin describes the climate Illinois has created that allows widespread lawsuit abuse throughout the state. 
 
The "they," of course, is trial attorneys, who exploit Illinois' very liberal judicial system to enrich themselves by winning huge monetary verdicts or settlements for their clients in civil cases. The abuse drives up costs for everyone else. Akin is executive director of the aptly named Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, which works to educate taxpayers about the impact of lawsuit abuse and its costs to
Illinois workers, consumers and businesses. He wasn't surprised when I sent him the latest report from financial website Wallethub, which concludes that Illinois' health-care providers pay the second-highest annual malpractice liability insurance rates in the U.S. and the state's insurance companies pay out the fifth-highest malpractice awards per capita. As a result, Illinois is the 42nd best state to practice medicine in, according to the website.
 
"The Illinois state legislature has not really done anything to address lawsuit reform," Akin said in response to the study. "So it’s really like the wild Wild West here.” Why should Illinoisans care about high malpractice rates and high malpractice awards? They increase health care costs for everyone and, similar to how Illinois' high workers' compensation costs affects manufacturers' decisions about whether to move or expand here, they influence doctors' decisions about where to set up their practices. "It affects us all by higher insurance premiums," Akin said. "It affects access to health care. I live in southern Illinois. If you have a brain or spine injury, there aren’t a lot of options nearby. That has a real-world effect. You have to be rushed to places like St. Louis, and you might not survive the trip." 
 
Health care isn't the only industry hurt by Illinois' "wild-west" judicial system. A 2017 Harris Poll ranked Illinois’ legal climate third-worst in the U.S. for business litigation. The poll, funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, concluded Illinois is known for its comparatively large damage payouts from lawsuits. "The state has ranked in the bottom five of the 50 states since 2005," the institute's website says. Also last year, Cook County and Madison County in southern Illinois were once again identified as "judicial hellholes" by the American Tort Reform Association, which in an annual report highlights the court districts across the U.S. that have become known for attracting personal injury lawsuits because of large money payouts. Cook and Madison make regular appearances on the annual "hellhole" report. 
 
Madison County, in fact, has become unofficially known as the asbestos lawsuit capital of the U.S. In 2016, Madison County heard 28 percent of all new asbestos cases filed in the U.S., according to research firm KCIC, the vast majority of them from out of state. The reason? Bigger payouts. According to the Illinois Civil Justice League, the county's asbestos litigation industry could be
worth more than $1.74 billion annually. The out-of-state lawsuits also crowd out local cases. "It’s not fair that these high-dollar cases take precedence," Akin said. "The need of Illinois citizens should come first." 
 
Akin doesn't expect major tort reforms, such as caps on monetary damages that states like Indiana have enacted. Not anytime soon in Illinois, where trial attorneys line politicians' pockets with large campaign donations. But there are some common-sense reforms that he says lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should be able to agree on. One is venue reform. 
 
"We need to make it more difficult for out-of-state lawsuits that have no connection to Illinois to find their way into Illinois courtrooms," he said. "It’s not fair to Illinois residents to have to compete with that when they have their own legal issues to work through." 
 
Illinois has many fiscal problems. Lawsuit abuse is one that sometimes gets lost in the rumpus over high taxes, out-of-control spending, unaffordable public pensions and the like. Illinois, simply put, is a haven for lawsuit abuse. And we all pay the price.
 
DAN MCCALEB is news director of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ilnews.org. The INN is a project for the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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