Yet again, Cook County, Illinois and the City of St. Louis, Missouri, are included in the 2022/2023 “Judicial Hellholes Report” from the American Tort Reform Foundation. The twist to this year’s list relative to the national discussion is that venues notorious for plaintiffs’ cases just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis – the Illinois counties of St. Clair and Madison – are not clumped together with Cook County and are no longer considered by the report as “Judicial Hellholes.”
The national list is predicated with Georgia (#1), the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (#2), California (#3), New York (#4), South Carolina asbestos litigation (#6), and Louisiana (#7). Hellhole status was continued for Cook County, Illinois (#5) and the City of St. Louis (which dropped from #7 to #8) and most all plaintiff-friendly venues with a mass influx of product liability litigation (including Roundup®, talc and asbestos lawsuits), and “no-injury” lawsuits stemming from the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).
Both Madison and St. Clair Counties do find their way into the report, but not on the list because of the historical and current filings in asbestos litigation. While they do rank on the “Dishonorable Mentions” list, the judiciary of those counties, led by Chief Judge Gleeson and Chief Judge Mudge, are committed to focusing on maintaining confidence of both plaintiffs and defendants as unbiased arbiters in the pursuit of truth and justice, which is likely why these jurisdictions fell off the “Hellhole” list.
A new trend can be seen in Illinois, specifically Cook County, focusing on “no-injury” Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”) litigation. This legislation requires companies to inform an individual in writing and receive a written release prior to obtaining or retaining personal biometric data. In 2021, at least 89 judicial opinions referring to BIPA were published, which is four times more than the prior year. In February 2022, the Illinois Supreme Court opined in the McDonald v Symphony Bronzeville Park, a case that originated in Cook County, that BIPA injuries are not compensable under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act as there is no injury. The McDonald’s decision opens the flood gates for “no-injury” litigation and kills any hope that courts will intervene on BIPA claims against employers. Further, the first BIPA case taken to trial resulted in a substantial verdict of $228,000,000 in favor of plaintiff truck drivers, which also originated in Cook County.
The increase in food and beverage litigation also played a significant role in keeping Cook County on the list, as did the favorable jurisdiction for asbestos litigation due to its plaintiff-friendly reputation and judges’ refusal to be gate keepers in evidentiary rulings.
The City of St. Louis, similar to Cook County, Illinois, continues to draw significant product liability litigation, including in cases involving Monsanto and its Roundup® weed killer, talc, and asbestos. According to a 2022 U.S. Chamber study, Missouri ranked in the top 10 for most nuclear verdicts from 2010-2019, which includes St. Louis asbestos cases. In Trokey v Chesterton Co., a 2022 verdict against Ford in the amount of $20 million, was exactly what plaintiffs’ lawyer requested in closing argument.
While the Missouri legislature tried to move forward enacting stricter reform related to lawsuit abuse, it failed to pass such legislation in 2022 that would have specifically worked to combat these nuclear verdicts. These bills would have made a serious impact on this plaintiff friendly jurisdiction, including a bill which would have reduced the statute of limitations from five years, one of the longest in the United States, to two years. Another, S.B. 699, would have cut off the “novel innovator” liability theory that attempts to hold makers of brand name products liable for injuries alleged to have occurred from taking a generic version of a product.
Ultimately, St. Louis City and Cook County have a long road ahead of them to get off the “hellhole list,” but hopefully with innovative legislation and firm commitments from the respective judiciaries, these jurisdictions will also follow in the footsteps of St. Clair and Madison Counties.