Yesterday the big news in St. Louis was that the American Tort Reform Association named St. Clair County, Illinois, next door to Madison County, as the nation's number two "Judicial Hellhole" for 2004. The reason is stated in a heading on page 19 of ATRA's report: "Class Actions Arrive in St. Clair County" (pdf). According to the report--which was parroted by newspapers and radio stations as if it were fact, not fiction--lawyers in St. Clair County filed only two class actions in 2002, but filed 24 in 2004, an increase of over 1000%. The report implies that the two cases in 2002 were the first class actions ever in St. Clair County.
Like much of the report, these "factual" statements are complete nonsense. First of all, 24 class actions isn't very many. I'll wager that hundreds of class actions are filed every year in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, etc. Second, class actions are often the only way consumers can recoup small losses after they've been defrauded--small losses that can add up to millions of dollars in profits to corporations. The class action is a procedural device, not an evil.
Most importantly, however, ATRA's charge that class actions are new to St. Clair County--a charge that forms the basis for the "judicial hellhole" slur which libels an entire group of hard-working and honest judges and lawyers--is completely false. The class-action procedural device has been part of the litigation landscape in Illinois--and, in fact, the entire country--for decades. Class actions were filed in St. Clair County long before 2002. How do I know? On the computer on which I'm typing now, I have draft and final versions of pleadings from at least six class actions that predate 2002 by up to five years, all filed in St. Clair County. (I also doubt that only two class actions were filed in 2002, a claim based entirely on a single sentence in an article in the Belleville News-Democrat.)
I realize that some will say that the very existence of class-action lawyers like me demonstrates that there is a problem. I don't agree, but I welcome the debate. Still, as long as we're debating, I wonder why ATRA finds it necessary to mislead and deceive in order to make its point? Why can't ATRA tell the truth? And why do newspapers with long and glorious histories like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch allow themselves to be duped?
For related posts explaining the good that can come from class actions, see here, here, and here. All my posts about tort "reform" can be found here. And thanks to the Center for Justice & Democracy for notifying me about its response to the ATRA report, which you can read here (pdf).