Illinois' lawsuit climate is yet another weight on its economy
Lisa A. Rickard president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, and Todd Maisch president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce
If Illinois attracted companies the way it attracts lawsuits, the state's dismal economic outlook would look a whole lot brighter. Instead, Illinois is weighed down by seemingly never-ending fiscal crises, political gridlock and one of the most abusive lawsuit climates in the country.
A survey released recently by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform ranks Illinois' lawsuit climate 48th worst in the nation. There are many reasons for this ranking, but key among them is a perceived lack of fairness in the state's laws, courts, judges and juries.
Illinois also is home to two of the most problematic jurisdictions in the country. Chicago/Cook County ranks as the worst lawsuit jurisdiction nationally and Madison County ranks eighth worst.
Cook County has 41 percent of the state's population, but 63 percent of Illinois' lawsuits seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
Recent scandals also raise questions about Cook County's judges. In the last two years, two judges have been removed from the bench over accusations of mortgage fraud. A third judge resigned after being cited for misconduct for refusing to preside over traffic court.
Madison County (pop. 266,000) is so litigious that some insurance companies refuse to write policies for property and excess liability there. Madison County averages eight lawsuits for every 1,000 residents, double the rate of even the litigious Cook County.
Madison County's reputation for plaintiff-friendly courts has made it the national epicenter for asbestos litigation with almost a third of all of the asbestos cases in the entire country filed there last year. The great majority of the asbestos claims in Madison County - 83 percent - are filed by plaintiffs who don't live in Illinois and were not injured in Illinois. Drawing in this many out-of-state cases clogs the courts, depletes scarce resources, and eats into taxpayer dollars.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has made civil justice reform a priority, has repeatedly cited Illinois' abusive lawsuit environment as one of the main reasons why companies tell him they won't do business in Illinois. "It is devastating to many employers," he says.
The new lawsuit climate survey commissioned by the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform backs up that assertion. Eighty-five percent of the more than 1,300 business leaders questioned for this year's survey say a state's litigation climate is likely to impact their company's decisions about where to locate or expand. That is the highest percentage in the survey's 15-year history.
In contrast to Illinois, many surrounding states have passed common-sense laws that help facilitate a fair and predictable legal climate.
State lawmakers could join this movement for reform and improve Illinois' reputation as a magnet for out-of-state lawsuits by passing legislation, supported by the governor, that would require lawsuits be filed where a plaintiff lives or where the injury occurred. This would discourage the clogging of Illinois' courts with out-of-state cases. The state could also pass legislation that would ensure that parties found at fault pay damages in proportion to their responsibility for an injury rather than getting hit with unwarranted penalties.
While these measures would not solve all of Illinois' challenges - especially since the state Supreme Court has invalidated some past legal reforms - it would be a good start. Given that the state is stuck down in 48th place, even small steps can make a difference.