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Recent defense verdicts out of Madison County, Ill., over the past month may be a sign that the county — considered a national haven for plaintiffs lawyers — is becoming more hospitable to defendants. “The people of Madison County are moving away from an extremely pro-plaintiffs’ position and moderating back to the center,” said Jeffrey Hebrank, vice president of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, and a partner at Burroughs, Hepler, Broom, MacDonald, Hebrank & True in Edwardsville, Ill., who litigated a recent asbestos trial in Madison County. Jurors in Madison County Circuit Court returned two defense verdicts this month: one in an asbestos case against General Electric Co., Gudmundson v. G.E., No. 03-L-538, and the other a medical malpractice trial, Wolfe v. Southwestern Illinois Health FAC. Inc., No. 03L2022. In a third trial in May, Madison County jurors awarded a 78-year-old plaintiff with admitted asbestos-related mesothelioma damages of $50,000 — far short of the $50 million that plaintiffs lawyers had asked for. King vs. Bondex International, No. 04-L-579. PRESSURE AVERTED? Plaintiffs lawyers charge that forces have descended on the county to systematically pressure jurors away from awarding money. The heat of a national spotlight, a partisan newspaper published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a visit from President Bush are just some of the factors influencing jurors to think beyond the facts of the case about how their verdict will affect the economy and the county’s reputation, plaintiffs attorneys assert. “There are plenty of places in favor of tort reform, but I’ve never tried a case in an environment like that,” said David Greenstone, plaintiffs counsel in the G.E. trial, which was his first case in Madison County. Greenstone’s firm, Waters & Kraus of Dallas, was lead counsel in the two asbestos cases in Madison County this month. “There seemed to be a number of forces at work trying to keep the verdict down and keep the jury from awarding money,” added Greenstone. G.E.’s defense counsel, John M. Fitzpatrick of LeClair Ryan in Richmond, Va., said asbestos trials have been rare in Madison County, with only about one a year in the last 20 years. Plaintiffs lawyers too often expect asbestos defendants to roll over because it’s Madison County, he said. This was G.E.’s first time taking an asbestos case to verdict, and its motion to get the case moved from Madison County was denied in January. “We can always look for excuses, but I tend to think this verdict had nothing to do with the fact that it was filed in Madison County, so much as that it was just an exceptionally weak case,” Fitzpatrick said. Defense lawyer Timothy S. Richards of Neville, Richards & Wuller in Belleville, Ill., who won the medical malpractice verdict, said Madison County jurors were attuned to the facts of his case and not reacting to social pressures. Richards said he spoke with jurors after the verdict. “Basically, they found that the medical defense was convincing,” said Richards. “There was nothing about this idea that we have to do something about a medical malpractice crisis.” Lawyers on both sides say they are still not convinced there was ever anything skewed about Madison County to begin with. But if the defense is on a winning streak, local plaintiffs lawyers are not rattled by it. “If you believe all the rhetoric, you would think that defense verdicts didn’t happen in Madison County,” said Brad Lakin of The Lakin Law Firm in Wood River, Ill. Lakin asserted that a lot of money has been spent to present a distorted image of the county. He points to a $43 million plaintiffs’ verdict he won against Ford over a fuel tank explosion in April as evidence that jurors in Madison County can quickly swing the other way. Jablonski v. Ford, No. 03-L-2-O-27. Ed Murnane, of the Illinois Civil Justice League, which advocates tort reform on behalf of member insurance companies and medical providers, said changes are under way in Madison County, and both sides are right about them. The pendulum is swinging, he said, because jurors are paying more attention. “People in Madison County are tired of living in a jurisdiction that has been subjected to ridicule,” Murnane said. “It’s appropriate for jurors to ask questions about how far they should go and has the system here been going too far.”

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