Asbestos litigation documentary shines light on abuses; Film depicts business owner's struggle to get out of meritless suit

A documentary set to premiere this week scrutinizes the cottage industry of asbestos litigation.

The National Press Club will hold an in-progress showing of “Unsettled: Inside the Strange World of Asbestos Lawsuits” on Dec. 14 in Washington D.C.

The film by Paul Johnson follows a California car dealership sued for asbestos exposure. Because the dealership had never used asbestos, the defense attorney assumed the matter would be resolved quickly, but he was wrong.

“He soon found out that facts don’t always matter in the strange and secretive world of American asbestos lawsuits,” according to a promotion for the film. “In these lawsuits, it’s not always clear who is really sick, how they became sick, or if it even matters.”

Following the tale to Washington D.C. to uncover the sums of money contributed to politicians by trial attorneys who bring asbestos claims, the documentary seeks to uncover a system that pays big dividends to lawyers at the expense of victims with mesothelioma and business owners accused of being at fault.

Madison County is familiar with the story. It sees the most asbestos-related personal injury case filings of any jurisdiction in the United States, Mark Behrens, a defense litigator who appears in the documentary, told the Record. Not because they’re residents but because the courts have proved to be welcoming.

“Few plaintiffs who file in Madison County are residents; most do not even live in Illinois,” Behrens said. “Madison County attracts mesothelioma cases because plaintiffs can get to trial faster than in many other jurisdictions. The court has set up a system that fosters settlements, leading to what is essentially an asbestos case mill. Illinois also has permissive venue laws, which allows out-of-state plaintiffs to file there.”

In a comprehensive study of Illinois county court dockets, the Illinois Civil Justice League found that certain jurisdictions in the state are magnets for litigation, including Madison and St. Clair counties.

Another recent study produced by the ICJL shows the significance of trial lawyer contributions to Illinois judges and politicians over the past 15 years — all totaled, $35.35 million.

Madison and St. Clair county courts, which along with Cook County host the state’s highest concentrations of civil litigation, factor prominently in the ICJL study, «Justice for Sale III.»

Pastuovic said the film “UnSettled” reinforces what those who are familiar with the asbestos docket already know.

“It’s disturbing but not surprising, based on what I know,” he said of the film.

He said it’s all about money. While there’s a lot of secrecy surrounding asbestos cases, he estimated each case yields an estimated $2 million, bringing in $1.74 billion annually. About $600 million of that goes to plaintiffs’ attorneys in the form of contingency fees.

Trial lawyers have shown they’re willing to spend money to keep favorable laws and policies in place.

The ICJL’s Justice for Sale III report tallied contributions by the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association’s legislative political action committee, as well as contributions by the top 25 plaintiffs’ firms, including their lawyers and family members. Between January 2001 and March 2016, ITLA contributed $6 million. Altogether, the law firms invested $29 million in political campaigns during the same time period.

No race was too small: Plaintiffs attorneys contributed to legislators, constitutional officers, judges, state’s attorneys, county board chairmen, circuit clerks, county party chairmen, mayors, union leaders and politically allied special interests.

Nationally, lawyers, including lobbyists, contributed more than $209 million to campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with the American Association for Justice, formerly called the American Trial Lawyers Association, leading the way. According to the center, at least two-thirds of spending by this group is directed to Democrats.

“This is causing many problems in Illinois,” Pastuovic said, adding that the litigious environment scares away businesses and much-needed jobs.

To Behrens, the idea that a plaintiff would “give up a ‘home field’ advantage” to pursue a case in Illinois raises a red flag. He’d like to see the courts do more to reduce the number of cases, which could interfere with other matters brought by local residents and force potential jurors to take time off work for cases that should be in other states.

First, he said the courts should grant defendants’ motions dismiss cases that have no “logical” connection to the county.

Roughly 10 percent of asbestos cases come from Illinois residents and less than 1 percent of cases are filed on behalf of Madison County residents.

Late last year, Madison County Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs denied a motion to dismiss by Ford Motor Company over jurisdiction. Ford, headquartered in Detroit, faces a lawsuit brought by attorneys at Maune Raichle, who filed suit in Madison County Circuit Court, on behalf of plaintiffs living in Florida. The St. Louis law firm specializes in mesothelioma cases.

Ford has appealed the case, which is being heard at the Fifth District Appellate Court today on a bench that includes two newly elected Republican justices who were opposed by asbestos personal injury attorneys, including the Maune Raichle firm.

Additionally, Behrens suggested the courts should:

– Discourage “shotgun pleadings,” where plaintiffs’ lawyers sue first, and then dismiss many defendants who never belonged in the case in the first place.

– The courts should require plaintiffs to file all asbestos bankruptcy trust claims before trial to prevent “double dipping” by plaintiffs. Double dipping occurs when a plaintiff recovers twice for the same harm by bringing a personal injury lawsuit followed by numerous asbestos bankruptcy trust claims. He said this is a problem in Madison County.

He believes the film, “UnSettled,” brings attention to abuses.

“The film provides a vehicle to stimulate further discussion regarding the need for improvements to the civil justice system in the area of asbestos litigation,” he said.

Pastuovic agreed, saying, “What’s important for us is the need to continue to beat the drum for civil justice reform.”

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