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Study slaps Cook County over lax approach to suits
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/29/2009 12:00 AM

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An Illinois legal-reform group released a study Wednesday suggesting Cook County is squandering millions of dollars annually with a lax approach to fighting frivolous lawsuits.

Using reports from the Cook County Board of Commissioners' Finance Committee, the study says the county spent $69 million in 2008 on lawsuit expenses, almost $50 million in settlements and judgments - more than Los Angeles County in California, which has double the population, and more than 700 times what DuPage County spends, even though Cook County has only six times the population.

"We need to do something better with the public's money than paying out lawsuits," said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

Akin blamed "the overall culture that exists here" with the prevalence of litigation, but also said the county government brought the problem on itself.

"The word is out that Cook County is a soft target, and I think people are coming after Cook County to get their share of the pie, so to speak," Akin said.

The study suggests the problem is getting worse, citing legal expenditures of $46 million in 2006, $62 million in 2007 and $69 million in 2008.

"I think if you go back many years there's a history of this," said Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Bartlett Republican.

President Todd Stroger's office did not respond to calls to address the study.

The study says Cook paid out $190 million in settlements and judgments from 2005 through 2008, and compares that with $157 million in California's Los Angeles County. It then points to how, while Cook was spending nearly $46 million in 2007 and $50 million in 2008 on legal judgments and settlements, DuPage was paying $560,000 and, in 2008, just $67,000.

Cook County oversees a vast Health & Hospitals System considerably different from DuPage or Los Angeles counties. Yet, Schneider said the criticism is valid.

"Frankly, I couldn't agree more," Schneider said. "The number of lawsuits filed and the amount of damages awarded plaintiffs is absurd."

He said the problem was largely systemic. "Cook County and the state of Illinois seem to be the cash cow for personal-injury lawyers," Schneider added. "When you are a governmental entity, you are a target and you are the deep pockets." He said statewide tort reform, especially in workers' compensation, is called for.

"Excessive litigation is costing taxpayers dearly," said Palatine's Rita Mullins, quoted in the study. "As a former mayor, I had to deal with lawsuits on a daily basis and so I know the crippling affect lawsuits can have on a community's budget. The answer, though, is not to raise taxes or borrow money. The answer is to be proactive in creating an environment where lawsuits are the last resort - not the first response when something goes wrong."

The study suggested the county adopt more transparency to draw attention to the problem and take a more aggressive approach in fighting suits, citing the position recently taken by the Chicago Police Department under new Superintendent Jody Weis.

"It's bad for morale," Akin said. "It makes the city look bad to pay out these suits, and he's said, 'Enough is enough.' That strategy will work, and I think Cook County could implement a similar strategy."

"It starts short-term with the County Board saying we're not going to do that anymore," said Schneider. "If we can fight and win, we're going to do that."

Schneider said the $69 million figure in legal expenditures for 2008 seemed accurate, given how the county sets aside more than $80 million annually in self-insurance.

Although I-LAW, founded in 2002, declares itself nonpartisan, Akin has a background working for Republicans in the state Senate, and the group has made a specialty of fighting "frivolous" suits, with tort reform being a favored GOP cause. Akin said I-LAW was set up to "educate the public about the issue of lawsuit abuse (and) how it affects the economy and quality of life." He hopes to do additional studies on the costs of lawsuits to municipalities and school districts.

I-LAW plans to promote the study with a billboard truck declaring Cook County "lawsuit tax capital of the U.S." that will tour suburban areas including Arlington Heights, Schaumburg and Des Plaines over the next week.