Lawsuit reform hot issue at Capitol

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Tuesday largely belonged to lawsuit reform — mainly from the plaintiffs’  view — as the Illinois House convened as a committee of the whole at the Capitol.

The hearing consisted mainly of plaintiff testimony, that of victims of medical malpractice and wrongful injury or, in the case of wrongful deaths, surviving family members.

Chairwoman Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) said the hearing was devoted not to lobbying interests but to individuals.

“Today we have an opportunity to hear a side of the story that is considerably less represented,” Nekritz said. “Today we have an obligation and an opportunity to listen to those whose voices would be silenced and to understand the cost of turning our backs on irresponsible behavior.”

House GOP floor leader Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) said while he didn’t doubt the veracity of Tuesday’s witnesses or the worthiness of their cases, the hearing was not balanced.

“I did notice there are no insurance representatives, business representatives or any advocates for reasonable reforms on this agenda,” Sandack said.

“I just wish these were balanced and real committees of the whole, that’s all,” Sandack said of the process, which is controlled by the majority Democrats.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office issued a statement saying the governor was pleased to see lawmakers discuss the matter.

”Reforms are needed to stop venue shopping, clarify liability and to repeal the jury compensation law passed during last year’s veto session,” according to the governor’s statement.

Many of the House witnesses on Tuesday testified against limits on jury awards.

Illinois State Police Trooper James Sauter was killed late the night of March 28, 2013, on Interstate 294 near Northbrook when a trucker who’d not taken required mandatory breaks plowed into the rear of his squad car. The 28-year-old trooper burned to death inside the car, his widow said.

Capping jury awards only encourages companies and individuals who care more about profits than people, she said.

“Anyone thinking about voting yes to a bill that would put a cap on civil wrongful death lawsuits in the state of Illinois would also be voting yes to killing innocent civilians,” Elizabeth Sauter said.

“Putting a cap on lawsuits means you care more about big business than the citizens you represent,” she said.

Medical malpractice

Contacted for comment on Tuesday’s proceedings, Dr. Scott Cooper, president of the Illinois State Medical Society argued for medical liability reform in Illinois.

He said Illinois loses about half of the physicians who complete a residency here, with about two-thirds of those citing the state’s reputation for lawsuit abuse as a factor.

The lawsuit climate in Illinois also forces doctors to doctors to drop or limit certain high-risk procedures and order more tests than medically necessary, a practice known as defensive medicine.

“Illinois physicians believe in fair compensation for patients who are harmed while receiving medical care,” Cooper said. “It is not our intent to impede anyone’s right to file a lawsuit. However, reforms are needed to ensure Illinoisans’ access to medical care.”

In testimony before the House, though, Northwestern University finance and law professor Bernard Black said caps on awards actually have little, if any, positive impact on physician supply in a given state, total healthcare spending or health care quality.

Litigation hotspots

In a news conference at the Capitol, John Pastuovic, President of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said Illinois has become a magnet for plaintiff attorneys from around the country who bring lawsuits that have nothing to do with Illinois.

The result, he said, is a devastating impact on job retention and creation as companies grow ever more gun shy about investing here.

Case filings and verdict totals are disparately large in three pockets of the state, his organization and other litigation reform groups argue. Those areas are Cook County, Madison and St. Clair counties in the Metro East area, and an emerging litigation triangle in Southern Illinois made up of Jackson, Jefferson and Williamson counties.

Madison county, the groups say, is handling a third to one-half of the country’s asbestos cases even though only a small percentage of those case actually involve local or even Illinois plaintiffs.

The league says the so-called “asbestos rocket docket” might generate as much as $1.74 billion in awards annually and as much as $600 million in contingency fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association issued a scathing rebuttal calling the League “a political front group for wealthy special interests and massive corporations” and its research “junk science.”

“Illinois courts provide an even-handed avenue for individuals to hold wrongdoers accountable – even the most powerful actors who, in other spheres of our government, exert vastly disproportionate influence over decision making,” the lawyers group argued.

Tuesday’s hearing was not on a particular piece of legislation and was the decision of House Speaker Michael Madigan, who last week held a similar session on workers compensation.

Both topics are items on Rauner’s “Illinois Turnaround” agenda, which he’s touted aggressively on speaking stops throughout the state and pitched to city and county governments for support.

The governor, however, has not sent specific legislation to the General Assembly by way of his party members, and analysts offer several reasons why Madigan is calling committee of the whole hearings on Rauner talking points.

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