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Madison County, Ill., population 258,941, has become the mesothelioma capital of the United States, an industry group claims. According to the Coalition for Litigation Justice, 953 asbestos cases were filed there last year. More than 400 of them, it said, were mesothelioma claims. “How is it that one small county in one state is home to one-quarter of all mesothelioma cases filed in the United States?” former U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell asked at a recent symposium at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Well, maybe it is — and then again, maybe it isn’t. A coalition spokesperson said that the 25 percent figure was Bell’s, not the coalition’s. But she declined to identify the source of the coalition’s numbers, except to say that they were extrapolated by one of its members. Deepening the mystery, Bell’s secretary said that the former AG is not speaking to the press. Bell is now senior counsel to the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding. At the symposium, he reportedly called for a federal investigation into the county’s justice system. That suggestion prompted another speaker, asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyer Randall A. Bono, to retort, “Bring it on! We have nothing to hide.” Bono is a former Madison County Circuit Court judge. A current Madison County judge, Nicholas G. Byron, manages the court’s asbestos docket. On April 16, two days after the Bell vs. Bono exchange, Byron said that he planned to bar King & Spalding from practicing there. Or perhaps he didn’t. According to a transcript of that day’s proceedings, as Byron worked through several pro hac vice applications, he repeatedly asked if any attorneys from Atlanta were in the courtroom, and once asked if there were any King & Spalding lawyers present. “The reason being, folks,” Byron said, “I’m going to bar a certain firm from practicing in the jurisdiction.” But he never expressly identified that firm as King & Spalding, leaving nothing resembling a contestable order. According to the coalition, a not-for-profit alliance created in 2000 by 10 major insurance companies, more than 300 mesothelioma cases are presently set for trial in Madison County. That figure, it says, exceeds the total of any other jurisdiction in the country. But the verifiability of that assertion remains elusive. Madison County Circuit Court Clerk Matt Melucci said that while his office does track asbestos case filings, it does not break them down by the type of disease alleged. He added that interested people were free to peruse the court’s records by hand, and that such figures could be compiled that way. The National Center for State Courts also maintains some case filing statistics. But a researcher there said that the center does not separately track asbestos suit filings. Even the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, which two years ago published a report titled “Asbestos Litigation Costs and Compensation,” cannot produce an accurate case count. “Nobody knows,” said Deborah Hensler, a co-author of the Rand report. “There is no way, currently, for anyone to know how many asbestos cases are filed on an annual basis.” Adding up the number of cases pending against each major defendant would produce a misleading total, Hensler explained, because plaintiffs often sue multiple defendants in a single filing, meaning that the same cases would be counted repeatedly. Statistics provided by Melucci’s office do confirm that 953 new asbestos suits were filed there last year, up from 809 in 2002 and 889 in 2001. Seventy-two more were filed there as of April 12, 2004. Bono, who won a $250 million verdict in an asbestos trial against U.S. Steel Corp. last year, defended the influx by listing a number of corporations that either made or sold products containing asbestos that are headquartered in Illinois, including BorgWarner Inc.; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; Caterpillar Inc.; and CertainTeed Corp. Situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, the county was also home to four steel mills, three oil refineries and the Olin brassworks, he added. Coalition attorney Victor Schwartz, a Washington-based partner in Kansas City, Mo.’s Shook, Hardy & Bacon has a different theory: “The county is hearing hundreds, maybe thousands of cases that have nothing to do with the county,” filed by plaintiffs who didn’t work there, did not live there and weren’t injured there. He attributed the phenomenon to the court’s reluctance to grant summary judgment to innocent defendants and a policy of overloading the trial calendar. Accusing the judges there of failing to apply equal justice under the law, he said, “the normal process of weeding out bad for good are not applied.”

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