Personal injury lawyers and their clients have made millions thanks to a thriving industry amid the rolling hills of two south-western Illinois counties, one that has existed for the last 20 years. When it comes to St Clair County, quiet courthouses are plentiful and the high priced lawyers have won hundreds of millions of dollars in awards and settlements from several corporate giants. Nearly $58 million was awarded to forty seven workers from one of the huge companies after they were injured in January 1979 during the clean-up of a toxic spill at Sturgeon, Missouri. When it comes to dioxin permanently injuring people, this was the first verdict issued.
Thanks to the jury, 32 of the 47 workers who filed suit, more than the total number of reported million dollar injury verdicts in any state, were instant millionaires. As an East St Louis attorney who won a $15.65 million verdict against a big company in St Clair County this year mentioned, the legal community is an industry in itself. You will see them hire union people, go to the grocery stores, buy houses, and live here. Known for big awards are the counties’ jurors and they come from a largely blue collar pool.
In the entire New York state, the latest verdicts would top the total number of million dollar awards was predicted by the research director of a jury verdict research company. Here, about a third of the award in personal injury cases and about a quarter of what they win for their clients in railroad and barge injury cases goes to the lawyers. For the injured railroad and barge workers, for them to have access to the talented, high powered lawyers whose specialized offices dot the southern Illinois countryside, there are two federal laws that can be applied.
The Federal Employees Liability Act of 1910 allows injured railroad workers to file personal injury claims wherever the railroad does business. When it comes to Madison and St Clair counties, tracks of a dozen rail lines crisscross them. In this case, there is also the Jones Act of 1915 where it is possible for barge and towboat workers to file personal injury claims in the area similar to what the crewmen injured on the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans do. Running for five to six years is the waiting period in Chicago for you to get a trial on a personal injury suit but in Madison and St Clair counties it is only 33 months.
20 percent was kept, 75 percent went to the plaintiff, and 5 percent was donated to the union’s legal defense fund for every settlement won the St Clair County Circuit Judge said. The arrangement became known as the ticket system, and a lawyer to whom union officials would steer their members was said to have a ticket. The judge, who has been either a judge or lawyer in the area for years, says the awards historically have stood up on appeal. Having worked for the railroad and steel mills for two or three generations were the people here.
Financially, the Madison County government and the lawyers and business people in the area have been blessed by the suits. As mentioned by the Madison County Circuit Clerk, the Madison County Circuit Clerk’s office was able to operate with a surplus of close to $500,000 for each of the past three years because of filing fees of close to $100 a case for civil suits greater than $15,000. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 15,294 civil suits, excluding traffic violations, were filed.
One personal injury lawyer says that a few people realize that this is a multi-million dollar business. What they pay for are lots of taxes including corporate personal property tax. It is common for them to put their money from these judgments into the local banks and rent buildings.