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In the supposed “judicial hellhole” of Madison County, Ill., as the American Tort Reform Association puts it, two plaintiffs’ firms are vying for pre-eminence. They are responsible for three-fourths of the 77 class actions last year in the Madison County Circuit Court. One firm is a veteran of many successful suits, most recently a $10.1 billion judgment against Philip Morris USA over its allegedly fraudulent marketing of “light” cigarettes. Price v. Philip Morris Inc., No. 00-L-112. The other, a relative newcomer to the class action business, is putting more cases into the system than its older rival but hasn’t won one. Heaven or hell, the downstate Illinois county, population 260,000, is one of the country’s busiest and best-known centers for class action litigation. A 2001 study published by the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy said that it trails only Los Angeles County and Chicago’s Cook County in frequency of such filings. The tobacco case was among 39 class actions in 2000. The next year saw 60 new ones. Last year brought 77, and 59 of them were brought by the two firms, which have have beaten different paths to the courthouse door. The older firm is St. Louis-based Carr Korein Tillery, which filed 21 class actions last year, but only four through April of this year. Stephen M. Tillery, 53, the youngest name partner in the 31-year-old firm, tried the Philip Morris case, and it wasn’t his first foray into the headlines. Last year, he hammered out a $350 million settlement in a class action against AT&T and its spinoff, Lucent Technologies. He also finalized a $133 million settlement wrung out of the Midwestern Bell System spinoff, Ameritech. Success in the class action field has so altered the firm’s focus that this year it fragmented into five separate, though still affiliated, law offices. One of the breakaway partners was co-founder Rex Carr. The upstart is the 14-attorney Lakin Law Firm, based in nearby Wood River, Ill. It was founded as a personal injury practice in 1980 by L. Thomas Lakin, an early associate of the other firm. It filed no class actions before 1995 but is now highly active, with 24 new filings this year and 38 last year. It has yet to take a class action to trial. “We’re looking forward to that day,” said managing partner Bradley M. Lakin, the founder’s 32-year-old son. THE COUNTY A little northeast of St. Louis, Madison County sits on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois. Its courthouse of ill repute, as some would put it, is a three-story white marble edifice with a sky-lit atrium on North Main Street in Edwardsville, the county seat. Inside, beyond the metal detector and baggage X-ray, stands a life-size bronze statue of James Madison brandishing a rolled-up copy of the U.S. Constitution. “Madison County has been a magnet for nationwide litigation for decades because, historically, so many railroads passed over the Mississippi at that point,” said Gregory C. Ray, president of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel. The county was not only a railroad hub, but also was home to a vibrant steel industry and active waterfront. Much of the industry has died, but Madison juries are still largely blue collar and middle class. “Juries in Madison County are comprised primarily of industrial workers and their spouses,” said Harry C. Armstrong, a 71-year-old insurance defense attorney who has practiced in Edwardsville since 1957 and is a founder of Armstrong Reed Gorman Mudge Morrissey of Edwardsville. He estimated that he has tried more than 400 cases there. “Industrial workers tend to give away more money than farm workers and businessmen,” he said. Consequently, Armstrong routinely recommends to the carriers that are his clients that they make more money available for settlement in Madison County than elsewhere. “It’s a different ball game,” Ray said he tells his clients. “Play by the rules. Don’t pretend to change the rules. It won’t happen.” THE TILLERY FIRM Starting out in 1972 from an office in East St. Louis, Ill., Carr Korein and then-associate Lakin represented Mississippi River workers filing personal injury claims under the federal Jones Act and railroad workers seeking compensation pursuant to the Federal Employee Liability Act. Many of those cases were filed in Madison County. “We tend to file cases where we are,” said co-founding partner Sandor Korein. Gesturing toward the river from his downtown St. Louis office, he said, “We live over there.” Tillery declined to talk about the controversy swirling around Madison County. Without referring to the Lakin firm by name he said, “All of this hullabaloo is over one firm, and it’s not this one.” But, historically speaking, it frequently has been. From 1984 to 1987, Carr litigated the nation’s longest civil trial, a three-year pursuit of the Monsanto chemical company after the spill of a teaspoonful of dioxin from a railroad car allegedly made 64 people ill. He won $16 million in punitive damages, but lost it on appeal. Tillery, a one-time state appeals court clerk, joined the firm as a partner in 1988 after being hired to defend it in a breakup fight with another ex-partner. He remade the firm in his image, hiring what he calls “second floor” lawyers — lawyers who cut their teeth on heavy duty appellate research and writing — not storefront types chasing personal injury cases. Intending to take on complex patent litigation, Tillery said, he detoured into class action work. His first major effort was the Ameritech litigation. Filed in Madison County as two suits, it challenged the phone company’s in-house wire maintenance program, alleging that customers were being billed for a service they never asked for. Folkerts v. Ameritech Corp., No. 95-L-912, and Todt v. Ameritech Corp., No. 97-L-1020. The cases were settled for more than $100 million in services, including free wiring repairs and $33 million in cash for a class of 1.7 million just in Illinois. Tillery’s firm took home a negotiated fee of nearly $16 million. And, after six years of discovery, he rang up the $350 million funded settlement in Sparks v. AT&T Corp., No. 96-LM-983, a suit alleging that the defendants never made clear to customers that they no longer needed to lease their phones after the 1984 Bell breakup and could buy them for less money. That deal also included attorney fees and costs in excess of $80 million. Tillery defended the payment as proper, based on the effort expended. He added that the money was divided among nine firms and hundreds of lawyers. Nonetheless, a group called the Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch has inducted the case into its “Hall of Shame,” complaining that the lion’s share of the recovery value went to the lawyers, not the class. If the Philip Morris judgment stands, Tillery’s trial team, which included attorney Michael J. Brickman of the Charleston, S.C., firm Richardson Patrick Westbrook & Brickman, will reap $1.8 billion in fees and costs. In that case, Judge Nicholas G. Byron found Philip Morris had defrauded more than a million Illinois smokers of its Marlboro Lights and Cambridge-brand light cigarettes by implying that they were safer than regular cigarettes. Tillery received at least one death threat as a result of his work on Philip Morris. He also received a letter from a stockholder, saying, “People smoke. It’s their own damn fault. If they want to smoke, let them smoke. If they want to die, let them die. Leave Philip Morris alone.” He wouldn’t divulge the firm’s annual revenues. He said half of its income is derived from class actions. THE LAKIN FIRM In contrast, Brad Lakin said that his firm has yet to see much, if any, return on the many class actions it has filed. “It’s been a huge investment,” he said. Lakin said the firm has been concentrating on industrywide class actions. The filing of like suits against different defendants in the same industry partly accounts for the county’s large number of class action filings, he said. One area the firm has mined concerns auto insurers’ alleged efforts to mark down automatically personal injury insurance, or “medpay,” claims by 15 percent. His office has filed claims against 10 carriers. In one, Siler v. State Farm, No. 99-L-00863, the firm’s class certification motion failed, effectively killing the case. The firm lost “a couple of hundred thousand dollars in attorney time and expenses,” Lakin said. His firm has won certification in three other cases. Two are expected to go to trial within a year. It also settled medpay suits against Travelers and the Shelter Insurance Co. The former will reimburse insureds for 50 percent of the automatic markdown, the latter will pay 100 percent of the difference. The lawyers netted a combined total of $4.75 million in fees. Meanwhile, the Lakins are relying on their core of traditional tort litigation — medical malpractice, nursing home negligence and Jones Act cases — to pay the bills. “They’re still the bread-and-butter of our firm,” Lakin said. “They keep the lights on and everybody going.” One of those Jones Act cases, Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, 531 U.S. 438 (2001), reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices unanimously upheld an injured seaman’s right to pursue a shipboard liability claim in state court instead of federal, handing a victory to Lakin associate Roy C. Dripps. Of the elder Lakin, a local defense lawyer speaking on condition of anonymity said, “The guy’s got juice. He’s considered to be very powerful.�If you’re an outsider, why not go with the strongest firm?” John H. Beisner, a class action defense attorney with O’Melveny & Myers, has called for expansion of federal diversity jurisdiction so that fewer class actions are decided by state courts. Beisner said that the Lakin firm is a conduit for outsiders’ filings in Madison County. He asserts that many of the firm’s complaints are filed in conjunction with other firms, some as near as Chicago, others as far as San Francisco, suggesting that cases “were being delivered to the Lakin firm for filing there.” Beisner has penned his beliefs in a series of reports published by the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy and the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy. “The Manhattan Institute is wrong,” Brad Lakin said. However, Lakin said that he does regularly collaborate on class actions with a Chicago law office, Freed & Weiss. Lakin said the Chicago firm does back-office research and writing and handles depositions and court appearances. The clients, Lakin said, are his. Freed & Weiss partner Paul Weiss rejected the notion that plaintiffs are forum shopping in Madison, saying that every case filed there includes a plaintiff who lives there. “It would be pretty obscene if you had a citizen from California filing in Madison County,” he said. “But what’s wrong with a citizen from Madison County filing in its home court?”

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